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On the Second Day

The advantage of picking one's mum up from Luton airport is that it's then possible to squeeze in a second fishing trip on the way back home. Haviing scored so mightily with the barbel the day before, I didn't need to persuade myself too hard to try again. Having negotiated another early rise I arrived at the car park at about 6.30am. No-one there but myself and a man who appears to be living out of his van with two enormous shaggy dogs.

It's colder this morning and the blister from the Doc Martins is playing up on my right heel as I wander down the road to the track. Turning the corner, two tiny farm cats come pelting through the gate and stop dead right in front me. They both spring vertically into their air and then one cuts off left while the other goes right. It's like finding yourself suddenly in the middle of a cartoon.

I know where the river is now, so there are none of yesterday's geographical distractions. I head straight for the right swim and tackle up exactly as yesterday. First cast I get a hilarious chub bite. Second cast I get a nice little chub - about 2lbs - and then nothing. The swim goes dead and I wonder if I've put everything down by returning the chub into the water at my feet. I try different parts of the swim and start to pick up bites. At around 8.30 I see a kingfisher zipping low across the water, heading downstream and shortly afterwards I'm buzzed by a small flock of finches who take it in turns to be surprised at finding my head directly in their flight path. They settle into the tree beside me and chatter away happily. Then the swans move in and sit right in front of me for 20 minutes. I make a cup of coffee while I wait for them to move on.

Last cast, I drop the bait almost directly in front of me, a few feet out from the bank. The rod is in the rest and then it isn't. I'm striking a solid thump and it's another barbel. It comes up off the bottom faster than yesterday's one but then wakes up and proceeds to take me for a tour of all the interesting-looking snags in the swim, almost getting his nose into the big one in the middle before I turn him away. I'm using pretty stout tackle so it's relatively easy. When he comes in he's larger than yesterday's and is turning to golden brown, the way barbel do when they get bigger. Only one more and it'll equal my best ever tally of barbel in a season.

Where's the river?

There's always a frisson of excitement when you return to a well-loved and well-known stretch of river. Lakes you see, don't really change that much. Oh, they do over time, but they don't change the way rivers change. And today's a case in point. Everything else is the same. The common where you have to leave the car since the residents kicked up about anglers parking in the lane, the potholes in the road that they can't be arsed to fix, the quaint little - and not so little - houses that look over the common (and the weird thing in the middle that looks like a sweat shop, but can't be).

The cut down towards the fields is still there, but hang on...this bridge is new and where's the gate? What gate? The rusty gate that adorns this very blog. Cunningly you see I'd intended to try and reproduce the shot of the horses in a Surrey field at sunrise at different times of the year and then switch the picture at the top to reflect the seasons. Maybe even sell it as a calendar. No chance of that now the gate's gone.

Having crossed the lock and started downstream, I'm faced with a more serious problem. The river has gone. Or rather it's hidden behind a wall of foliage that stands higher than me and seems comprised of stinging nettles on steroids and this weird pink stuff that has stalks a bit like rhubarb but doesn't taste as nice. I wander down parallel to where the river should be until I see a faint trail heading in the right direction and waving my landing net handle in front of me strike off into the jungle. It takes a couple of minutes before I can see water, by which time I've been stung all up one arm and am covered in pink petals from the rhubarb stuff - I look like a bride at a Hindu wedding - except I'm a bloke and have a beard.

But this can't be the right spot. The tree's gone. And half the bank's been consumed by rhubarb and...wait a minute, this is the right spot because there's the gouge out of the bank on the other side, and that's the tree where the sun comes up and - having looked a little more carefully - there's the tree on my side. It's just fallen in the water. Bloody hell.

Having stopped mucking about with all these side issues I turn to the swim itself. This is lovely. Actually, it's luvverly. The water's doing all sorts of weird contortionist things. There's a fast run with whirls and eddies coming off it, there's a slow deep bit, then shallows on the near bank and something over the other side that looks like deep water. Right in front of me the water actually flows in a circle. There's so much to choose from I don't know where to start.

So having tackled up with 8lb line straight through to a size 4 hook with a 3/4 ounce Arlsey bomb on the end, I settle down onto the inflatable cushion and look towards the river. I'm so low down and the undergrowth's so high that I can't see where I'm casting - so that solves one problem, then. I get a corking tug first cast on luncheon meat and then we settle into a familiar frustrating progression whereby I waste two hours on 'bites' that are mostly weed before getting a real bite that nearly pulls the rod out of its rest and makes me realise I've been wasting my time.

I call my missus to bemoan my fishless plight and promptly hook something heavy that holds the bottom just like a barbel, but comes off after a few only seconds. I phone back to explain why I hung up on her. The swim disturbed, I boil water for a coffee (though looking around me I wish I had some custard powder) and then sit and drink it noisily. Re-casting I proceed to get a series of unmissable bites which I miss every time.

Finally, aware that I need to leave to pick my mum up from Luton airport, I have one last cast into the slow circle of water in front of me, pop the rod in the rest and then lean back to contemplate where it all went wrong. At which point the rod tip throbs and pulls down in a series of steps and I strike. It's a barbel again, and keeps low in the water for about three minutes, forging this way and that, invisible, yet so much a barbel that I feel like I've seen it already. When it finally comes to the surface it's smaller than I hoped but still a lovely fish. I give it between five and six pounds and happily pack up, crunch back up through the rhubarb to the path and return to the car, pausing only to photograph the ugliest horse I've ever seen.

A Fine Idea

Apparently it was all my idea, which was why Ray expressed surprise at my surprise that he should telephone to ask what time we were meeting up to go fishing that evening.

This came as something of a shock. I tried to piece together the events of the previous evening. One old fart meeting two other old farts to play some guitar - check. Songs old and new, borrowed and original - check. Bottle of French cider - check. Bottle of cheap French red wine - check. Further bottle of imported cider - oh dear...although nothing's coming back to me (certainly not Ray's insistence on my insistence that we go fishing this evening) it's all starting to make a terrible sense.

And, since it was my idea, I'll claim the credit for it. A lovely evening. No-one else at the water at all, some nice tench, a few small rudd and roach, the inveitable eel, an inquisitive field mouse who made so much noise in the rushes next to me that it sounded as though he was driving a car around in there, and this beautiful common carp. About 8lbs, he took a small piece of luncheon meat on a size 12 hook, first cast and proceeded to tear around the swim, tugging the old John Wilson left and then right (I'm enjoying giving this rod a run out this season, it's been a while); finally he came in, neatly lip hooked and went back in the swim next door after having his photo taken.

We saw a hot air balloon, several dozen bats, several million midges, and watched as the perch - which are growing to a decent size by all accounts - scattered fry all over one half of the lake for about an hour before the sun went down and set the sky on fire. Which as you can see, was a sight worth coming whether we caught any fish or not.

Black Sheep

Having decided to head for a different stretch of the river my plans were scuppered after a quick check of the club website. We don't have that bit any more; instead we've got the stretch over the road which is nigh on unfishable - steep, steep banks, no swims and no fish so far as I can see (I'll fit right in then).
So instead, I set off for a couple of small ponds near the river, up and over a field or two and set out of the way in a small copse. I haven't fished here for years but for the patient, quiet angler, there used to be nice crucian carp and the odd tench.

Got lost of course and ended up driving the 323 over some farmer's fields, weaving in and out of the wheels of hay, trying to find a landmark I could remember from all those years back. In the end I came back out onto the road, bouncing cheerfully up and down, and taking the next turning found myself on a much more likely-looking dirt track. The car heaved a sigh of relief and things began to slip into place. I remembered this. The little flat area in front of the wooden building and the path over the top towards the copse.

There was a small, unremembered orchard which was infested with the noisiest sheep I've ever come across. They dashed towards me as I opened the gate and I had to poke them out of the way with the rod. Gate closed I set off through the orchard as the light settled and the sheep got back to sheep stuff. Later on I would hear them as I fished, sounding for all the world like they were having a huge fist fight.

Presented with another gate I was temporarily flummoxed. The club issues a membership card which has the padlock number for all the waters that are locked to keep out scroungers. It's a four digit number. This padlock only had three barrels. I tried the first three numbers, then the last three, then gave up and hauled my ageing carcass over the top of the gate. As I jumped off it made that kind of metal whanging sound as it vibrated back and forth - haven't heard that for a while.

The ponds were even more overgrown than before, the trees having spread out and over much of the water, leaving small open pools and little clear spots here and there. I had a quick reccy and disturbed a few surface feeding fish, probably small carp, before setting a float road and fishing with little lumps of luncheon meat on a size 12. It was really shallow, in fact even the two little commons I caught must have almost been scraping along the bottom of the pond in order to stay out of sight. Fish came up at my feet for insects and as the sun dropped the bats came out, flitting between the trees and swooping down to the water. I made a coffee about 8.30 and then fished until dark. Two bites, two fish, just either side of a pound.

Packing up, I put the little head torch on and went cold when it picked out two bright, blank eyes, standing at head height just on the other side of the fence. I caught the outline of pointed ears and a heavy, distended jaw before my Dennis Wheatley-style monster metamorphosed into a pleasantly curious bullock watching me get my gear together.

Oddly by the time I got back into the field, he'd vanished, and though I felt certain he'd ambush me with a comical head butt to the arse as I heaved back over the gate, he didn't. Instead I heard him cropping the bushes in the next field, making them shudder and shake.

Which meant I forgot the sheep completely. Delighted by my return, they pounded out of the darkness of the orchard - about eight of them - and proceeded to gambol around me in a parody of welcome. I could see their sheepy teeth and read the slow intent in their eyes. I've seen the movie. Next time I shall come armed with mint sauce.

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