It’s one of those beautiful early mornings in July where the world is at peace and you would think that absolutely nothing could go wrong. Unlike most other teenagers, still sweaty in their beds and unlikely to rise before midday. It’s 4.45am and I am already on the bank of the Stewpond, bait in water, just me and the morning ahead of me, with hopefully some fish to come.
By 8 o’clock the sun will be high and it will already be starting to get hot. The fishing will probably quieten down as the water warms. By then sadly, I will have to share the pond with dog-walkers and other anglers, but for now it’s just nature and me, and I just love it.
The mist in front of me rises from the water like it’s a broth. I can tell that the tench are feeding as the frothy bubbles they release when sifting the bottom with their mouths are rising in distinct patches, giving away their location and sharpening my sense of anticipation of a good catch. The only sounds on this stillest of mornings come from a coot as it chases its mate across the water and a duck which occasionally laughs from within the bulrushes. Perfect, and the first jogger not likely to appear and circle the pond for a good hour or two. Why can’t life always be like this? I cast my line to where one of the patches of fishy effervescence has just risen and sit back to wait.
Then, from nowhere, a cloud covers the early morning sun, creating a cold breeze which disturbs the mist, makes the surrounding trees rustle villainously and has me zipping up my fleece. The idyllic, tranquil atmosphere has gone in seconds. The tench bubbles are lost in the newly forming surface ripples and the edge the lily pads are lifted by the wind. The duck falls silent, the coot returns to its nest and there is an inexplicably ominous feel in the air.
“Good morning, Fisherman.”
I jump at the unexpected voice behind me. It’s quite a shock and I look around quickly. On the edge of the tree line, about ten feet back a man sits cross-legged. How long has he been there, I wonder.
“Sorry,” I say. “But you made me jump.”
He ignores my comment and stares across the water. The man has greasy, straggly hair and is dressed in clothes that could easily be someone else’s, for they seem too big for him and are dirty and very shabby. He looks strange, and immediately I don’t like him being there. His face and skin look as weathered and worn as his clothes. I would say he was quite old, maybe in his fifties, but then his eyes seem younger so I really can’t be sure. He has a very sore looking cut over his right eye that looks like it happened recently.
“What have you caught?” he asks abruptly with a hint of menace which makes me wonder if he is a bailiff preparing to sell me a day-ticket.
“Nothing,” I reply, not wanting to encourage conversation and hoping that if he is a bailiff he will just sell me the ticket and go.
“No, you won’t have”, he sniggers, making no obvious signs that he is going to move any time soon.
I try to make sense of what he said – does the lake belong to him I wonder, or somehow has he killed all the fish! There are also a number of mental hospitals on the other side of the Common and on warm days you sometimes get one or two of the patients come and talk to you. But they all seem harmless and concentrating on getting their words out more than what they actually say, but this man seems different, much more self-assured and I can’t help but sense danger.
“What do you do with the fish? Eat ‘em?”
“No!” I laugh. “No, I put them back to grow bigger.”
“So why do you fish for ‘em Fisherman, if you don’t eat ‘em?”
“Well, I guess it’s the challenge to catch big fish; you have to think a bit like they do and work out where they would be, and it never ceases to amaze me that such brilliantly shiny fish come out of such muddy water. But as much as catching fish I just like being out here in the countryside with all the wildlife, away from everyone – on my own.”
He doesn’t take my hint and all the time I am talking I feel vulnerable with him sitting out of my line of sight behind me. I make a mental note of where my bike is on the bank in case he means to run off with it. Perhaps he wants money – I’ve only got enough for my day-ticket. I reach down and rummage around in my tackle box, pretending to tidy up my hook boxes and floats when really I am checking exactly where my penknife is, just in case. His cut face suggests violence may be a regular companion. Rightly or wrongly, I’m wary of him now. I decide it’s best to try to find out if he is from the mental hospitals as maybe he’s escaped and they are out looking for him.
“So, do you live round here?”
He laughs “You could say that.”
I don’t like this ambiguous answer, it’s like he’s teasing me.
“So what are you after catching then, Fisherman?” It sounds like he is sneering, but I can’t be sure.
“Well tench mainly I suppose, and I know there are some carp in here.”
“Ah, carp you say?”
“Yeah, rumour has it there’s a twenty-pounder in here.”
“You shouldn’t listen to rumour Fisherman, the biggest is just over twelve.”
How does he know? Maybe it is his lake after all.
“You seem to know a lot – do you fish here yourself?” I ask.
“No, not really.”
Not really! What kind of answer is that? He either does or he doesn’t. He thinks he’s winding me up. Perhaps he is.
“Do you have bread, Fisherman?”
“Err…yes.” I don’t really want to admit this as it’s my sandwiches, but I am too scared to lie to him in case somehow he knows.
“I like bread. Better than…” He stops himself, comes forward and grabs the bread from my hand and stuffs it all into his mouth in one go, as if he hasn’t eaten for days, all except for one small piece of crust.
“Thank you, Fisherman,” he says, mouth still full of half-chewed bread; the first thing he has said that hasn’t felt like a covered fist.
“See that space there? By the edge of the lily pads – Put this piece of bread on your hook and try there.”
“Ok, thanks,” I say, and mould the bread around the hook. It’s not a spot I’d usually fish because I know there is a sunken branch there which snaps your line if you hook it.
My float lands in the exact spot with a ‘plop’ and I wind in a little to tighten the slack line. I wonder if he is trying to make me lose my tackle.
“Now Fisherman, you just wait.”
I’m not sure if this is an instruction or a threat. Either way I’m on edge with him sitting there and if he has to stay, wish he would come to one side where I can see what he is doing. I desperately try to spot him in my peripheral vision without him realising, but he has positioned himself right behind me. All I can do is act as if nothing is happening and steel myself for the blow on the head that may well come.
I try not to fidget although I am all tense and I feel my adrenaline start to flow. ‘Act normal’, I tell myself. Time passes, I don’t know how much to be honest, as I’m wondering whether I’ve been here long enough to reel in and tell him I’m packing-up to go home without raising suspicion that it’s because of him, when I see my float bob, bob again, then jerk and shoot underwater and my line tightens fast as a big fish bites then pulls for all it’s worth to get free.
My rod bends hard as I strain to keep it away from the sunken branch, against which my line would inevitably break. It’s quite a fight, the fish is strong, but eventually it starts to tire and up to the surface comes the most beautiful, plump silver-flanked carp, easily the biggest I’ve ever caught.
Relieved and excited, I land the fish in my net and heave it on to the bank next to me. I tremble with excitement as I remove the hook from its large mouth. When I lift the fish to weigh it I notice a nasty cut over its right eye that looks recent. That reminds me of the man, I look around, but he has gone. The carp weighs twelve pounds, two ounces.