Hazily waking, the glaring alarm paused, a quiet trickle breaks the otherwise eerie still. A sudden punch of odour fully wakes me as I swing the car door open, Stu just stirring inside. Sewage. Of course, we’d managed to grab a few hours kip outside the sewage treatment works, that’s why it was so easy to find a spot to bunk here. Victorian engineering, frequently spilling over during any of England’s regular rain events onto unsuspecting paddling home-counties tourists, now put to work during the darkness while the village sleeps. Not us though, we have a purpose. I pull up my sleeve: 23:30. Stu peeks out now too, as we both pull waders on after three hours of almost sleep in the back of the car. This was the bargain I’d made for a nocturnal foray to a spot that looked particularly delicious during these spring tides; a deep-water refuge for fish to hold station as the riches of the warm autumnal inshore water ebbed towards them. Stu, a resourceful man- having toasted his bread rolls after spilling petrol on them in a vain attempt to make them edible – decided that three hours would be sufficient to allow a continuous push tonight and straight onto a day afloat. Imagine the horror of missing prime conditions for the sake of a little rest. Not so. We live and die by the tides.
I’ve been coming to this stretch of coastline for as long as I can remember, visiting my grandparents on summer holidays. It’s here that I first dipped a net, squealed in delight at the sight of a territorial clingfish, or the apparently monstrous squat lobsters inhabiting the technicolour rockpools. Fitting then that I should end up as a fishy PhD student in the very place where I first got a glimpse under the surface. It’s here that the rule of the tides was observed, the same individuals of a dazzling array of species coming back to the microcosms of marine life, interactions between them guessed at with unhindered childish enthusiasm. I’d like to think that the unabashed joy of beholding new detail with each visit still runs strong; indeed, I reckon that it’s an essential trait that entwines naturalists and anglers.
You always seem to travel faster at night. Something about the lack of reference points to sense pace, heightened senses, or scarcity of distractions to slow you down. The clinging cold of the damp air attacked the still damp waders from the afternoon’s session. The breathable waders have had permanent residence in the boot since spring, eyelets of the boots long since rusted and replaced by punched holes through the leather. Perhaps now was time to concede to the heavier, warmer, vinyl pair. We did at least have the feeble warmth of torchlight for now to comfort us on our walk, the feeding zone still a kilometre or so away.
As we paced towards our mark, we recounted what had and hadn’t worked in the diurnal reconnaissance trip and several sessions beforehand. Stu had success on small soft paddletails, whilst I found the hits on the baby Patchinko too good to resist. With regular double hook-ups in the short window of frantic activity, one chromed torpedo sprung from the water just between us, knocking the lure into the air and causing a knee-jerk early strike in reaction. In an automatic response, having spent more of the summer possessed by night-time sea trout fishing, the lure was immediately dropped back over the fish on the rod lengths of line. To both of our cackling delight, the eager culprit came straight back and with an improved accuracy, sending the reel fizzing in equal glee.
Reaching the water’s edge, we checked watches once again. A little over an hour till low, should do it. We’d need to keep the torches on for now to watch our footing as we made our way out to the raised bar. Thigh deep in water, a pale patch of sand started drifting up current in the draining flow. To our delight, this pale patch of sand transpired to be a thornback ray, holding in the thigh deep water we were wading. It skulked away with a dismissive ease from our presence, apparently off to munch on crabs elsewhere. Feeling the cool water shrink away further with each step, eventually the drag of the water gave way to the soft crunch of fine shingle over estuarine mud. Game time, torches off.
At first, all appears barren. Time limited, we took our positions a short distance apart and started casting into the oblivion. A dull drag on the line, the weightless senko has reached my feet and pulls on the grasping bladder wrack. Step, lift, cast, click, slow draw. As a rhythm sets in, I become vaguely aware of details growing around the periphery. The empty silence is replaced by a chorus of the crackling of drying weed, the squirt of exposed shellfish buried deep and an occasional heart-raising splash out in the inky black of the sea. Now eyes adjust too, as the pale white lure comes crisp into vision and the trail of bioluminescent algae glitter behind as it makes a straight path towards me. In a few moments, the whole atmosphere becomes stifling, the whole bar apparently one living thing, otherwise veiled in the daylight.
This area became quite a favourite during the late months of the year, when the close season on rivers had forced a cold turkey retreat from the fly rods and much of my work was still desk based. Ideal then, that there is a supermarket with free wifi extending to half of the car park to read emails and research articles to put in a day’s work until the tide beckons and the laptop and stove brewed coffee are exchanged for waders and a light lure rod. Desk based work really just translates to, ‘back of the car based work’. During these short, solo forays, my taped-up pair of headphones helps to break up what can otherwise be quite disappointingly slow back-end fishing into a dancefloor to express my casting style. The hazy fingerpicking and offbeat lyrics of Kurt Vile match my own ragged feelings at the end of a season where I’d given it all, still scraping for a bonus fish or two. Perhaps the hypnotic rhythm of the extended guitar sequences transferred to the action of the lure, perhaps my tiny impulsive two-step stirred up a little food, but just like the magazine stories, a fired up late-season bass came crashing through the sonic waves with the loudest, ‘here I am’ and graced me with one of my better fish for the year.
Despite the hum of life though, tonight was all still quiet, lures unmolested in the dark. A mild note of panic set in, the urgency of our situation, at the mercy of tide. We must find bass. With each empty retrieve paranoia whispers louder as to the tide rising steadily up wader-clad legs, even though my watch confirmed that the tide was indeed retreating. Watch checked, another hour and fifteen to go. A soft plop over to my right followed by rather more frantic splashing indicates that Stu is in. Wandering over, a barbless hook is easily popped out and the modest fish splashes away, leaving a bioluminescent trail in the inky black. The mania of a western gold miner sets Stu’s resolve hard, big bass must come eventually, and this individual, no bigger than the specimens we had caught by light, did not warrant spooking the ultimate prize by turning on headtorch. ‘Bastard’, I grinningly said quietly in his direction, my mockery formed as a puff of steam in the cooling air, as a third bass was swiftly fought and returned from shore with painful efficiency. I looked at my weightless senko with utter disappointment, feeling conned by everyone and anyone who had ever caught a bass on such an arrangement.
Fortunately however, as the tide came slack, even the bass tickler had action drying up. Knowing the privilege of our position on this fine evening, a rich patch of intertidal habitat rarely exposed to the eyes of terrestrial beings such as ourselves, the petulance of the silent bass was our permission to go explore. Rounding the corner, we tentatively agreed that we were far enough to ease the headtorches back into life. At first glance we saw the stands of bladderwrack and kelp carpeting the exposed sandbank, then, as our eyes grew more intent on the detail, the movements of crustaceans, fish, molluscs and primitive worms stood out from the canvas. Pulling one lump of kelp aside, a greater pipefish, dislodged from its camouflaged refuge, writhed in my hand. A decorated spider crab crept steadily aside, tufts of brilliant red and deep brown algae springing from all appendages. The clap of a scallop, sunken in a hollow behind gave a sudden jump and brought us out along scanning the foreshore for new life.
The curious sight of a large anemone shrouding a large hermit crab popped out and then was repeated by several more. This was revealed to be Leach’s hermit crab (and it’s aptly named mutualist the cloak anemone), a species normally associated with deeper waters and one that neither of us had come across before. Other grotesque discoveries awaited, like the hideous Polychaete Amphitrite figulus, with a network of flesh-coloured tubes that appeared to have been spewed up from its guts over the sand, too ugly apparently for a common name to have been given. Naturally, thoughts turned to what, of all this life, might the bass (and our friendly thornback ray) be feeding on? Most abundant, as we scuffed the patches of weed with our boots, were masses of small jumping prawns and thumbnail-sized shore crabs.
Torches off and back in position, half an hour left. As a lure is worked with small taps back towards me, I can feel the drag of the incoming tide swaying the lure in its grip. Tap, tap, tap. The lure continues to jump and jolt over small pieces of structure, trying to imitate the movement of the fleeing food we had seen. A transcendent confidence comes upon me. This is the place, we have obeyed the call of the tide. The rolling melody of a fingerpicked Fender comes into my mind and I sway in rhythm. Bite or no bites, there would be no restless rolling in bed thinking of what might have been if I had only been of stronger will, no making excuses about family or work commitments. The time was now, we’d laid down our hand and it felt good to be there.
Five minutes we agree, the tide is running fast now. A tiny white paddletail, just shy of three inches and with a mere 3g head is sent back into the tide. Pause, click, swing and wind. I try to imagine the coordination of the lure dancing in the flowing tide, how might a predator in pursuit view this? Bang, finally, fish on! A bass had slammed the lure as it fluttered down in the tide and was now making violent head shakes this way and that, though where exactly I could only guess in the dark. Stu too was seeing a resurgence of action, but I could hear him shout over support with an equal caution that we needed to move soon. I could feel the rising tide, having progressed over the knees and now well up the thighs of my waders, adding to the urgency of landing this unseen fish that I was now connected with. Don’t cock it now, Dan, stay focussed. Splashing in the shallows and then scooped up onto soft bladderwrack. Relief. Really the bass was only modest, but the process was the reward – my hand laid down had been taken up.
No time to bask in self-adulation, the bass is quickly released as we scramble our gear as fast as we can, skipping and sliding on mud and weed covered patches of rock. The narrow channel we had crossed earlier was now a running river of tide. No time to hesitate, we live and die by the tide, we must get moving now! Despite our fears, the channel peaks at waist deep, though as we reach the far side and take a moment to absorb the events of the evening from safety, we realise that there might only have been ten or fifteen minutes more before we became stranded. On the walk back, we discuss why the night-time session had been relatively quiet in comparison with daytime experience, deciding that the bass must have been held up in shallower water, not needing the deep water refuge to escape to. Scratching out just enough conversation to stay awake for the drive, I dropped Stu at his office with one of my rods for the boat that day. Not enough time for a real sleep, a couple of ginger biscuits and a cup of tea so strong that the tannins dry your mouth, was a close second before he set off to gearing up for the sea once again.
I however managed to roll in home, the first glow of light peaking beyond the horizon, a thin chorus of birdsong calling in. More often than not, mediocre results are the staple of this game, but if you keep your ears open and dance in step with the hum of the night then you can be sure to have a little fun along the way.
Perhaps Dylan said it best: