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An Open Creel

H. T. Sheringham
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The Secret of the Canal


From the swinging-bridge down to the lock is a distance of perhaps three-quarters of a mile, and I should be afraid to say how often I have traversed it, rod in hand, on my way to the river below. The canal is part of the bewildering water-system of the Kennet, and it is not in great esteem for its fishing. In places the river itself is the waterway, and there you may expect to find fish in plenty, now and then even to catch them; but where the lie of the land, presence of a mill, or some other reason has hindered navigation, a canal has been cut to take the traffic, and in it fishing is not nearly so hopeful a matter.
MThis is not for lack of fish. Roach and dace abound in places, chub and perch are to be seen now and then, and everywhere there are numbers of small jack, with probably a sprinkling of big ones. But all these fish are amazingly difficult to catch. The water is nowhere deep except close to some bridge or lock, and it is nearly always clear as crystal. As one walks along the towpath the dace and roach swim just in front in great timorous droves, and it is scarcely possible to get either bait or fly to them without their taking alarm; even if one does succeed so far, they are not to be deluded into honest feeding. Many is the hour I have spent trying to tempt them - and they are well worth tempting, being fat and heavy - but I have never succeeded in catching more than two or three at a time, and those only of the younger sort.
MStill, the canal has never lost its fascination for me. It is a beautiful place, fringed with long grasses and scented water-thyme, shaded here and there with trees, and always full of varied interest. Somewhere along its course one generally sees a kingfisher flash by like an emerald meteor; at the sedge-lined corners the moorhens are constantly busy; impudent little dab-chicks suddenly appear, look scornfully at the intruder, and disappear in a ring like that made by a great fish. At every few yards as one walks there is a small boil in the water close to the bank, and if one stops to look one soon sees a baby pike, poised a yard out, and returning one’s gaze out of the corner of a watchful eye. Though he dashed off in such a hurry on being disturbed, he is not really alarmed. Even a tiny pike of four or five inches seems to have hereditary pride of race, to know that his family is the most formidable in the fresh waters, and that he has very little to be afraid of, except, perhaps, an encounter with his own grandparents. You can even touch him with the point of your rod if you advance it very slowly and steadily. Till a pike has had untoward experience of keeper’s or poacher’s wire noose he seems rather to like that sort of attention.
MBut the chief joy of the canal to me is the clearness of its water. Always, as I walk along on a sunny day, my steps get slower and slower, and my eyes are constantly turned to the fascinating clear spaces between the weeds. Some day I am sure I shall see something enormous in one of them, some pike huge enough to make history. I have been of that mind for years, and have not yet seen even the big fish which the lock-keeper sees as he passes by - a seventeen-pounder he calls it! Other people see it, too, so it must be there. The fact that it can hide itself from me, as it does, in a stretch where, with favouring light, one can see almost every inch of bottom, every spray of weed, makes me hopeful that there may also be a monster which nobody has ever seen.
MI have, moreover, had proofs that the canal holds secrets, and is slow to divulge them. I fished it for two or three years before I had an inkling that there were any trout in it. The thought of trout had never even occurred to me. Why should they leave a noble habitation like the Kennet to take up inferior lodgings in an almost streamless piece of water full of pike? Then one August day, when a breeze was ruffling the surface, I went out to spin for perch with a small Devon minnow, and was presently amazed to see a big trout follow the bait right across the canal almost to my feet. He did not take it, but his appearance opened new vistas, and a more careful watch was kept on the likely spots. Eventually the fact was established that there were one or two trout scattered along the length of canal between the two locks, and that they ought to be fished for. Accordingly, I fished for them, and a tedious business it was, flogging away with Alexandras and the like on windy days, with never a rise to cheer one up, and with a constantly growing doubt whether the fish did not hasten to leave the canal whenever the locks were opened to give entrance or exit to a barge.
MAt last I practically gave up the idea of catching one, and should have had no story to tell but for a lucky accident. One morning during what was supposed to be the mayfly season - Arctic weather was making it a thing of naught - I made my way in rain and wind along the canal to the river, in the fond hope of seeing a few mayflies and a rising trout. As I went I suddenly saw a trout in the canal. It was in a deepish pool clear of weeds right out in the middle, but not very far from the sill of a small overflow weir, which serves to carry surplus water from the canal, when it is very full, under a light towing-bridge to the river on the other side of a meadow. When the canal is full it causes a very slight stream above this weir, and no doubt the fish seen was there to take advantage of it.
MI could not get him to look at anything then, but after a blank day by the river and a consolatory cup of tea, I attached a gold-bodied grilse fly to the end of a mayfly cast, and came back to the canal. Several likely-looking spots, still ruffled by a brisk but diminishing wind, were fished carefully over without sign of a fish, and at last, about 7 pm, the haunt of the trout was reached. But the whole pool, some thirty yards in length, was covered without result, and it looked as though the fish was sulky or else had moved elsewhither. But whither would he have been likely to go? One part of a canal is much like another, and this was more favourable as a feeding-ground than most. Only one spot had been left untried, and this was the yard or two of clear water above the sill of the little weir, not more than two feet deep, and overlooked by every passer-by as he crossed the bridge. Still, there was more stream in this spot than anywhere; no one had crossed the bridge for some time, and it was worth trying.
MKneeling, I worked the fly across the spot. It had just reached the corner nearest to me when something seized it like a tiger, and dashed off wildly for the deeper water outside. A brisk fight followed, complicated by weeds, rough gusts of wind, and finally by an obstinate knuckle-joint on the landing-net; but at last all went smoothly, and in due course I knelt upon the towpath gloating over a beautifully spotted, small-headed trout that looked as if it ought to weigh three and a half pounds.
MAfter this triumph I made my way along the canal at peace with all the world, fishing such spots as seemed possible, but not expecting - or, indeed, desiring - another fish. It was enough glory to have achieved so unlikely a feat as killing a trout in the canal. At last I reached the river, found that there was scarcely a mayfly to be seen and scarcely a fish moving, waited about for an hour on the chance of a rise, and finally turned for home in the dusk. What instinct induced a pause at the little weir on the way back it would be difficult to say. The theory that a vacant place is at once occupied by another trout was scarcely to be applied to the canal, where fish were so few and far between. Still, the situation was a good one, the thing was just worth trying, and, to be brief, there was another trout there, which came head and tail at the fly, hooked itself and made the reel scream as it dashed off. Such a fight seldom falls to an angler’s lot. The fish for some minutes had it all its own way, and it was too dark by now to see where the weeds and other dangers were. The power of its runs was extraordinary, and yet when it jumped, as it did from time to time, it did not seem to be the six or seven pounds that it pulled. Only at the last, when after something like ten minutes the net received its own, was the mystery explained. The trout had hooked itself in one of the ventral fins. It was not so big as the first, after all, but it was even more shapely and well fed. The brace, on reaching the scales, were found to be three pounds six ounces and two pounds ten ounces respectively, and the hours of patience and effort which I had expended on the trout of the canal were at length repaid.
MThere were no more trout from there that year, but the next came tidings of two very big ones seen by a keeper and others. I patrolled the bank often early in the season, but I could not find them or any trace of them. Then came the mayfly time, and the usual disappointment with it. Despite glorious summer weather we had hardly any fly, and there were only about three days on which it was the least use fishing with the mayfly - small flies on the lower Kennet are hardly worth considering. Still, we were all supposed to be celebrating the great festival, so one went out dutifully day by day, hoping against hope for a hatch of fly and rise of trout which never came.
MOne afternoon, after a hot and fruitless morning, I had had lunch, and was strolling along by the canal soon after two, thinking principally of the futility of fishing, when I became aware of a movement in the water about twenty yards below me, close to the bank. I stopped, and perceived that it was a fish travelling in my direction and rising as it travelled. Presently I got a glimpse of a great length of spotted trout, enough almost to warrant the vast estimate of the keeper, which had been upwards of seven pounds. At the same moment there were footsteps behind me, and five small children trotted along waving boughs and making merry. I threw myself on their mercy, and implored them, as they valued all our lives, to creep along by the fish as close to the hedge and as far from the water as they could. Good as gold, they went by like mice, and left me with the trout still rising, and the chance, it seemed, of a lifetime. I was too excited to change my cast or take off the drawn point, for at any moment the fish might leave off. The Wickham would do as well as anything, and needed no changing. Rapidly I extended line, and was about to cast, when, horror! more footsteps sounded behind. I fear a lover and his lass have seldom before aroused tendencies so nearly homicidal. He was waving as he went a peeled wand, which flashed in the sun - waving it over the water! I groaned in spirit, but said nothing. There was nothing to say.
MThey went by, and I saw the wave of the fish as it retreated before them to the other side. It was put down for good. But no, up it came under the bank, once, twice, and a third time, travelling a foot at each rise. With a hedge at my side and a tree behind, covering it was an impossibility, but I was so excited that I performed that impossibility. With a miraculous switch cast, of which in cold blood I should be incapable (I heard the fly catch in the tree, but pulled it away madly), I got the fly out across the canal; it fell just in front of the trout, and a moment later had been sucked in. Then came the thrilling sensation of getting the hook home well into something really solid, a first sullen plunge, and afterwards a long fight up and down the canal. Twice he weeded me, several times the frail gut was in jeopardy; but mercifully he did nothing very violent, and at last I pulled him, beaten, over the big landing-net, and lifted him triumphantly to shore, the biggest trout I have ever got on a dry fly, and twenty-three and a half inches long. I wish I could stop there. But the truth must be told. Instead of his being the six-pounder I made sure he was during the fight, the diabolically truthful scales showed him to be four and a half pounds, and no more. A big head and good shoulders tapered away sadly towards the tail, and showed him to be both ancient and cannibal. “An ugly brute,” said a friend afterwards. So he was, but he gave me about the most exciting half-hour of my fishing life - a half-hour which I shall remember while I have life at all.
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An Open Creel is yet another gem of angling literature, written by one of its greatest exponents, Hugh Tempest Sheringham. He was a great all-rounder and in this extract he takes us fishing along the Kennet valley, on both river and canal.