I once held the record for the most roach caught in a day from the village pond - 40, if memory serves. I caught them all on tiny bits of cheese fished on a size 16 hook with a matchstick as a float. In order to reach the fish I took off my shoes and socks and waded into Latchmoor pond, then fished right in front of me. Forty roach in one day. Herculean. Of course, it was only a 'record' among myself and my friends (or rather friend, Chick) and I had no possible way of knowing whether anyone else had ever caught more fish in a day than I had. Still, as with many of the things that happen to small boys, the 'fact' stuck.
I had plenty of time to think about all those roach (and 40 fish of any description take a while to process, no matter what their size) as I sat on the motorway, late for an 8.00am rendezvous with Sean. I hate being late and didn't much like the idea of beginning a day on one of the finest rivers in southern England by not turning up on time. I should have known there was no rush (at least not beyond common courtesy). There rarely is in proper fishing, where there's a genuine chance of catching a monster, and as I nose the car down the lane I can imagine dark shapes rising to sip from the surface, skirting the roots of old trees or tucked under overhanging banks, fast asleep.
We park up and Sean shows me the river, like magician doing a reveal. He starts to explain how we're going to fish and I realise this is the first of many lessons I'll be learning today.
So let's see now. First, grayling really are as lovely as everyone says they are; second, they smell like roach and third, I could fish my local river for the rest of my life and never catch a fish like the one that waits at the end of this story. In other words, in order to catch a really big fish you have to go where they live.
It's self evident really, but until today I didn't realise that the quality of the fish you catch depends on the quality of the water you're fishing. This is both troubling and liberating. I've always directly equated my fishing successes and failures with my own levels of skill and concentration - that peculiar combination of muscle memory and practice that an angler feels when, rather like a footballer, he's on his game. Now it turns out this may not be the case. It may actually be easier to play well at Old Trafford than it is at Vicarage Road.
Here skill seems less of an issue. For a start the river is exquisite. On a cold winter's morning, clear and bright, it shines like a silk ribbon laid across a bolt of green cloth. I also know - and not just because Sean has told me - that it's full of fish. You can tell just by looking at it, and it suddenly strikes me that I'm about to experience the leather seats of a Jag when I've spent my whole life in the back of an Escort. There are two pound-plus grayling in here, and roach the size of which I've only ever seen in Bob James' landing net on the telly. Second, I've got a secret weapon - Sean. He knows the river and during the course of the day he will do everything but catch the fish for me - re-tackling at regular intervals, re-tying hooks, leaders, the perfection knot...and re-applying lost shot with endless patience. At various points we even take turns using the same rod and the 15 footer and Leeds centrepin I've brought do a great job.
In a current like this, where each cast is over almost as soon as it's begun, trotting suddenly makes sense. It's also easier than it's ever been before because Sean's chosen the right float and the river does the rest, peeling line from the pin while I do nothing except stare at the glorious stretch of water in front of me and try to follow the bobbing float as it tears off downstream. In quick succession I hook and lose a large chub (note to self: apparently there's a difference between playing a 4lb fish on a size 6 and 8lb line and playing it on an 18 with a 2.5lb leader - who knew?) and then a trout which stays on just long enough for Sean to identify it, then buggers off. I have a last cast in the same swim and in seconds the float has dashed 20 yards and vanished. I strike gently and then (as instructed) follow the fish downstream, treating it - and the stupid rice noodle leader - with ridiculous restraint. The fish fights powerfully, using its great sail fin in the current to good effect, but soon gives in and moments later is in the net, then in my hands. A 2lb grayling is an extraordinary sight. It's metallic with hints of camo green and perhaps just a dash of peacock. Its body feels solid in my hands, like a miniature barbel.
We continue downstream, stopping occasionally to run the float through various likely looking spots, trying a slack here and a faster run there. The sun flashing on the water makes it hard to see the float but the bites are steady enough and we catch trout and grayling and chub throughout the day before turning for the clubhouse and the roach hole above the bridge. The roach hole. There, I've said it. The hole where Sean says, my favourite fish of all is waiting.
On and off during the course of the day, Sean's loose fed me stories of the roach hole, of five enormous fish over 2lbs in as many casts, how it'll fish hard for 20 minutes and then go dead, that it's home to the largest roach in the river, and that - aargh - the swim might already be taken by the time we get there.
We negotiate the walk back, the clubhouse, retrieve the extra maggots from under Sean's car (where fat robins have gorged on them all day) and have a friendly chat with the landowner. All the while I'm inching towards the gate, desperate to get across the road and upstream to the bend and the roach hole. Finally he leaves and with a final wave, we can get into the next field. There's a pause. The banks are empty. We're set. Sean talks me through the swim, explains where the run is and how to pull the float back and into the slack at the end of the trot. "If you hook one," he says unnecessarily, "don't lose it."
What's peculiar is that the whole thing is over so quickly. In my case, catching the fish of a lifetime takes only a couple of minutes between flicking out the tackle, watching the float settle and then waddle down the swim, seeing the bite in slow motion, feeling the resistance (praying it really is that 'jagging fight') at first truculent and then just heavy, remembering the fragility of the hook length, the size of the hook, and then drawing the giant roach over the landing net and letting go, sinking back down into myself with relief. Relief that I haven't messed it up. Relief that I haven't let Sean down. Relief that I have delivered such a fish. Of course, down the years I've rehearsed a short speech in my mind, practised how I would look into that beautiful eye, breathe in the roachy perfume and then share my innermost thoughts with the waiting world.
All that comes out is "Fuck."
"Fuck," I say again, looking at the sky. I think that's all I say for about the next five minutes, over and over again.
The roach is weighed Passion for Angling-style in a plastic bag on Sean's digital scales. No room for doubt then, it really is an enormous roach. Strange how something so profound can be demonstrated so easily and so unequivocally. Stranger still that I can't wait to get it back into the water, as if I'm afraid it'll disappear in a puff of smoke or I'll wake up. As I watch its tail give a final, slow flick before disappearing back into the depths I get the most curious feeling - as if it is releasing me back into the world rather than the other way around. Exit, pursued by a roach.
On the way home, something occurs to me. Maths was never my strong suit but assuming that each of those forty Latchmoor roach weighed an average of one ounce, then by my reckoning that gives them a cumulative weight of 2lb 8oz, exactly the same as this singular, magnificent fish that I don't deserve and will never forget.