Dipping Into The Past

I took my three sons fishing this week. Not the hook-in-mouth variety, more your sedate swish-about with net and examine the contents kind. It was the boys' first exploration of a large body of water without a tiled surround. They were excited and so was I.

I recall being damp and smelly throughout my entire youth and the main source of my condition was rarely the discovery of girls, but more often this very pond and the brook which fed it. I patrolled them both incessantly, an embryonic hunter who sought to impale, ensnare or reel-in, everything from minnows to muskrat. My intentions are peaceable now. We probably startled a few million water-fleas, maybe rekindled territorial disputes by moving the odd aquatic boulder, but between the black mud and the shiny blue water, my boys and I managed to stay commendably green.

This was the principle difference between my latest adventure at the water's edge and those of my youth; nothing died. As a country kid, I killed animals as a matter of routine. Rats, mice, pigeons, rabbits and quite a few off-limits species as well, all of them providing me with fascinating insights about their habits, most dying for the privilege. How time mellows a fellow.

These days, my house rules dictate that hairy spiders with bony knees and no regard for my authority, are not hosed-down with fly-spray and left to thrash around in a frosted mess. Instead, they are captured with tumbler, birthday card and nil bravado, then gently re-aquatinted with the shed, which they own and I avoid. Spiders break treaties, especially when summer is on its way out, but a deal's a deal; their shed - my house. We manage.

Meanwhile, back at the pond, more than attitudes have changed. Fings ain't wot they used to be on the waterfront. It's a film and a song, it's also undeniable. We are talking severe pond here, verging on 'lake' actually, with depth to match. Carp hunters come here to cover themselves with vast umbrellas and their rods with bleeping gadgetry, the better to hassle a twenty-strong shoal of monsters on a 24-hour basis. Some of these lonely creatures have caught each other time and again, keeping the location of this weird, incestuous, relationship from those with similar tendencies.

From a carp persons point of view, the pond has it all, in terms of seclusion, manageable size, an up-gush of spring-water and secret surroundings. To me, who saw it scooped out three decades ago by a rapacious gravel company, and who watched it fill via rain, tributary and spring, until adopted by an angling society and stocked with amusements for the members, I say something's wrong. When I was born, the pond was a meadow, by the time I die, it could well be so again.

The stream which compliments the uprush of springwater to the pond, also acts as supply train and toilet-flush, bringing new blood to the neighbourhood and fresh air to the citizens. Humans need water too and someone built a reservoir upstream, using the main artery of the pond to siphon off any moisture which hindered the earth-movers. Using a narrow tributary as a sluice for tons of suspended soil, was brutally short-sighted.

Soon after they decided which member of the Royal family would donate its name to the project, the brains behind 'our' reservoir abandoned us. We now had several million tons of water to play with, a lovely yacht club, farmed trout aplenty and the joy of watching sheep munch away their lives on the reservoir banks. The problem was, to provide us with this un-asked-for bounty, they sold our stream down the river.

Thrombosis has already set in, the artery is silting-up, its vital function now reduced to nominal value. The useful life of the stream probably ended years ago, when its silt quota finally outweighed the nutritional content and it smothered, rather than mothered, the lungs of the pond. Uncivil engineers have turned a babbling brook into a Capstan Full-Strength.

My boys know nothing of this, for they are absorbed in the pursuit of leeches. At three, four and six, the young 'uns fear nothing. They have yet to see Bogart ripping leeches the size of inner-tubes from his flesh whilst towing The African Queen. My mates and I saw that movie and we were traditionally petrified of leeches, but old wives tales were intact back then. My lot are blitzed with facts and superb nature programmes, they don't worry about earwigs eating their brains, or bats getting tangled in their hair. The eldest has gel in his anyway, a dive-bombing pipistrelle would skid-on regardless.

Everything revolves around competition for these three. I blame Nintendo. We suffered terrible tantrums during the great "My bullhead's bigger 'n your bullhead" tournament. I was forced to intervene on behalf of the youngest, lest his brothers remove his eyeball with rock or net-handle. When asked to judge the contestants, I had to comment aloud on the pitiful state of the modern bullhead. They were definitely bigger when I stalked them.

Like miniature angler fish, bullheads have lurked beneath homely stones throughout Europe for centuries. Never large enough to provoke culinary interest, even in the French, here is an animal of near perfect social standing. Its hermit lifestyle keeps it clear of pike and heron, while even the coarsest fisherman would not give it kreel-room. Beneath its precious rock, it just 'is'. Apart from the odd bit of sex and the hoovering up of snacks, bullheads simply chill-out their little lives with nary a care. Now they've got a shrinkage problem. It doesn't seem right.

Nostalgia has an elastic quality which lengthens summers and shortens dole queues, this is a different matter; the bullheads have definitely shrunk. Why? Perhaps they reacted to Chernobyl, I really couldn't say. What I do know is, if they carry on this bonsai lark much longer, instead of lording it up under substantial stones, they'll be arm-wrestling pond-lice for half-shares in a pebble.

Never mind the case of the ingrowing bullhead, what about the stone loach? That's cleared off all together. Stone loaches are, or at least were, small, torpedo-shaped fish which often shared accommodation with bullheads. The loach was like a rally-prepared version of its flatmate, relying on exit-speed and future concealment, rather than a touching faith in its own camouflage. Even in the mercury limbed days of my pre-teens, stone loaches were buggers to catch.

They unsportingly refused to be snuck-up on and removal of their sheltering stone caused an explosion of loach-kind, leaving the dopey bullheads sitting on the gravel looking smug. Descending hands cupped the dormant fish and more often than not, dumped them in a waiting bucket. I only caught three stone loaches, bare-handed, in my entire career and I was highly regarded in the loach department, I can tell you.

Twenty minutes of probing the once-productive crannies of my youth revealed yet another disturbing fact of mainstream life; it was a gudgeon-free zone. Now I'm really depressed. For years I've waited, champing at the bit, until my offspring reached that time in life when gudgeon can be truly appreciated. I signed away so many crispy leaves of my salad days to the mighty gudgeon and I don't begrudge a single one of them. The times I‘ve leaped astride an unsafe bicycle and peddled myself, my yellow glass rod and a handful of commando maggots toward this stream. Hours I spent, months probably, trotting a single gyrating gentle, suspended beneath a dried nettle-stem float, toward a swarm of these delightful fish, hoping that Moby Gudgeon would attach himself to my tiny hook. How proudly I held the local gudgeon record, with a blue-spangled brute of a gonk the length of my plimsoll, a handy unit of measurement which expanded nicely with the passage of time. At age fourteen, I took a size ten and rather than appear fanciful, I declared my gudgeon a barbel and retired from the fray.

So, no gudgeon or stone loaches, bullheads disappearing up their own hidey-holes; what's an environmentally correct father to do about it? Short of founding 'Gudgeon Peace' I really do not know, again. I sucked my teeth a lot. Then I felt cheated, angry and sad in rotation, until another fight broke out among the brotherhood, this time over the ownership of a swan-mussel.

I pressed on in biology mode, pointing out members of the underwater food-chain and their place in the cosmos. Sadly, daphnia, cyclops's and hordes of writhing, flailing, and gyrating things beyond my limited ken provided little stimulation for my brood. Well, they've been to California and Disney does a better job of turning them on. Universal Studios once inflicted upon my world weary trio a life-sized King Kong, which came rampaging out of the shadows to shake our cable-car. It's no wonder that a jarful of pond-life leaves them glazed.

Mind you, they were impressed when I did eight skips with a flat stone. If I can only find a dragonfly nymph that looks like Bart Simpson, I reckon there's a fair chance of my becoming their hero again.

Author's note: This article was written almost a decade ago, before fishing became my main hobby. I was tempted to edit it, in order to bring it up to date, but after reading it again (for the first time in years) I decided to leave it as-written. It's just a whimsical reflection, really. I hope you like it. TD.