I have just got back from a chilly afternoon on the Dorset Stour. At the moment we are in the middle of another cold snap, a cold snap made special this winter by the snow. The river looked impossibly black as it wound between white drifts. The willows were weighed down with snow but every few moments a layer of it lost its hold and slid with a curious hiss into the slow flowing water. So today was what used to be called classic winter conditions, though I have not fished in weather like this for twenty years.
For me, winter will always be the time when I concentrate on my local rivers. Fish like perch, chub, barbel and roach are in their peak of condition and, once the midwinter solstice is past, there is always the happy thought that each fishing day will be longer than the last until the season ends. Then, when the new season begins again on June 16th (I could never disregard a close season), I head towards my favourite tench and carp ponds, eager to savour the old magic of lily pads, mirrored sunrises and painted quill floats. Ponds and lakes in summer, rivers in winter, with a bit of merging of everything in the autumn; this had been the rhythm of my fishing for most of life – until recently.
A couple of years ago I went down to Cornwall, invited by a fishing pal, to have a few days bass fishing. I had only once caught a bass before, during a teenage summer holiday, and, though I was impressed with it, there had hardly been any more opportunities since then to cast for the species. My friend and I fished around the dramatic rocky coastline in a small dinghy, casting lures between outcrops, along deep gulleys and across shallow but quite treacherous reefs. We used floating plugs, a lure I had never used in the sea before, and the whole experience of exploring endless acres of clear calm mysterious water was completely mesmerising and engrossing. Then, suddenly, we found the bass – and everything was even more wonderful than before.
The event triggered a kind of piscatorial revolution in me. Back at my old willow-shaded haunts a week later, I began to have heretical thoughts. I wondered if my favourite ponds and lakes did not suddenly seem rather too quiet and tame after the more elemental magic of the sea. And the rivers, though lovely, lacked the unpredictable wildness that I had found so compelling about the sea. But I suppose it was the bass, really, that caused the real sea change. They are such terrific fish – so perfectly evolved for their environment, so fiercely beautiful – that I knew another obsession was beginning to creep up on me, just like the addictions I used to have for carp and barbel.
Fortunately, there is a more or less winter long bass close season, when the fish traditionally move offshore into deeper water or migrate south, therefore this new infatuation only truly takes hold in the summer and autumn. However, last year I began bassing in May and was still catching them in mid November, which meant that I was largely absent from the freshwaters where I had been an almost permanent summer fixture for half a century. And this year, once the spring comes once more, then I know the sea will begin to call and I’ll run way again, down to the nearest bit of coastline.
But it was nice today, not to feel that pull of the ocean, just the pull of a sparkling bright coloured perch as it dived down under a sunken willow. Each fish should have its season. Right now it’s the season for the perch, which is appropriate as perch are related to bass and even today I had time to dream myself out of the winter wonderland and imagine the calm blue expanse of a pre dawn sea. The silence before sunrise can be magical, and the stillness hypnotic– and then a fish strikes the surface, sending the sand eels exploding in every direction. I cast beyond the disturbance and draw the lure back across it, waiting for the silhouette of a great fish to rise up and charge the dawn with energy.
'Out of the Blue' Chris Yates’ new book about his seaside infatuation, is published by Hamish Hamilton and priced at £15.99.