Tales from the Snake Pit

Each dawn is the birth of a fresh new day and being out by the water is a wonderfully visceral way to experience this transition. For from the greyness of the pre-dawn gloom, silent yet expectant, one witnesses the waking of the natural world. The sweet magic of a beautiful spring morning, observe:

What starts off as the gentlest trickle of a stream, perhaps say with the melancholic warble of the humble Robin, steadily builds into a surging irresistible torrent of sound, colour and feeling. Organic scents emanate from all around first toying with and then engulfing ones olfactories; magical whiffs of water, earth, wind, and wood. Senses heighten and skin tingles as cool, ethereal strands of mist drape over you on their lazy journey home to merge once again with their original body.

As the living crescendo peaks, the water and its surround become so vibrantly alive that one cannot help but be swept along with the current of the ultimate ebb and flow. To resist is futile, one must simply let go and go with the flow. For if you do, any troubling thoughts or feelings will dissipate as your perspective is expanded ten thousand fold as you realise that you too are a musician in the vast orchestra of life.

A long time ago, well before I was struck down with ‘Carp Fever’, I was hugely into Tench fishing. I used to adore watching my little quill float, half-cocked in the mirror-like water, as dawn broke around me and the first fingers of warm summer sunshine crept through the trees. This kind of fishing is simplicity itself. It requires one ingredient, and gargantuan quantities of it, in order to be successful: unadulterated observation. If you get bored or distracted you miss everything. If you don’t keep your awareness on that float, the clear conduit of communication to and from the depths below, then you are very unlikely catch anything. Nor will you allow yourself the opportunity to simply rest your mind on something other than one’s usual distractions and more importantly, see the difference between the two.

I spent years fishing like this B.C. (Before Carp) and they were happy days. I didn’t realise at the time what an excellent apprenticeship I was serving in readiness for all of my future angling endeavours. Similarly, little did I know just how critically important the art of observation was going to be to me, stretching far beyond time spent at the waterside and into all the nooks and crannies of my life; a fluid awareness slowly building, bleeding into every crack and crevice of each moment.

As a teenager there were just a handful of waters offering the prospect of big Tench and within range of my trusty, rusty old push-bike. The lake that was farthest was a stunning, secluded club water near Arlesford Creek, some 10 miles ride; quite a mission at 3.30 in the morning with all your gear strapped to your bike. The closest was a mere 10 minute journey, and in this sense considerably more convenient. Convenience however usually comes at a price of some kind.

The closer lake was like a gateway into the exquisite Essex countryside for beyond it lay about 10 miles of unspoiled landscape (including the vast inland sea that was Abberton Reservoir) that eventually led all the way down to the mud flats of the beautiful but macabre Blackwater estuary. On the other side it was bordered by the last vestiges of urban sprawl and most notably by a small but potent council estate. The lake, a deep gravel pit, was well known in the area as a bizarre kind of outdoor play ground for the local juvenile delinquents. Imagine a beautiful body of water about 12 acres or so in size, with a superb variety of wildlife (including a shed-load of snakes) surrounded by vast swathes of scrub-land-come-heath.

Now combine this, if you can, with a very tangible ‘Mad Max’ lawlessness: burnt out cars, stolen motorbikes, prolific drug use, pyromania, air-rifle battles and the occasional mugging. A surreal soundtrack accompanied the scene: hours of relentless gun fire provided by the military rifle ranges next door. These elements comprised a heady mixture that was not to be taken too lightly. As a juxtaposition to all of this there were some awesome fish in that lake; less than a handful of proper monster Carp and some big Tench.

When we were little we used to go swimming there with our Mum during the long summer holidays. I was always a little reticent about this for there were a number of disturbing legends associated with the water. Whenever we graced the banks these tales lurked like shadows in the back of my mind although ultimately they only added to the mystique and charm of the place. I used to gaze into the depths shivering in my swimming trunks trying to pluck up the courage to take the plunge, one part fascinated and one part horrified as to what might lay below. One day, I told myself, I would do my best to find out for sure, to discover the truth and breach the divide between the two worlds. Part of the magic of fishing is that it can offer a sure portal into the watery world of the unknown; a bridge from the mundane into the profound.

A common fable was that there was a gigantic ravenous Pike of some 6 feet in length that frequently feasted on the feet of innocent children if they dared to enter the depths. Even timid shallow-water paddlers were at risk from this insatiable monster. Someone at school had confirmed this rumour to be quite true as his cousin’s friend’s friend had suffered an attack and consequently needed ten stitches in his leg. Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water!

Nonetheless swim we did having the best of times until one day when I had swum out to what I considered to be a daring distance from the bank, some large creature, a dark unseen apparition, brushed against my leg. It seemed huge and I can still remember the feeling of its cool, smooth flank disturbingly solid against my skin. I also remember the panic that set in as it kicked off pushing against me for propulsion. Needless to say my madly thrashed exit from the water was at a record breaking speed.

I never did confirm whether there actually was a big resident pike but I gave it a good go. Years later I spent a long winter seriously Pike fishing the water determined to discern fact from fiction. Fuelled by legends the prospect alone was exciting enough never mind the fishing. I used huge dead-baits, big mackerel gleaned from the fish mongers in town, and by methodically leapfrogging my two rods round the entire water week after week I made lots of fascinating discoveries along the way. If you are receptive it’s often when you are looking for a certain something that you find something else quite by accident.

I caught a fair few Pike but none were ever big enough validate the legend. After a cold winter of playing out this obsession I felt like I was evolving into a weird cross between Quint and Chief Brody from the film ‘Jaws’: one part foolhardy madness and one part cool rationale. With spring encroaching I thought it would be sensible to call time on the Pike front, for my own sanity perhaps, but not without a little regret that ‘The Monster’ had eluded me.

Most fishing tales have to be taken with a large pinch of salt for another time I met an old angler who swore blind that the lake housed a crocodile. As unbelievable as this might sound, it may have been true.

In the early 1980s there was a small surreal pet shop called ‘Animal Magic’ on the outskirts of Colchester, the nearest town. We often used to go there as children to peruse the smorgasbord of obscure tropical creatures they had on display. Baby Crocodiles were touted at £20 a pop and I wanted one dearly but my Mum said I wasn’t allowed. Amongst the many other beasts proffered were gigantic Monitor Lizards, a vast array of Snakes (some of which were quite venomous), Scorpions, Spiders and gigantic Tadpoles with a body the size of a two pence piece. I purchased one of these huge wrigglers and within two years it grew into an obscenely oversized Toad. It was far too big for me to look after and I eventually donated it to Colchester Zoo where most fortuitously they had one other of the species and the pair lived happily ever after.

It is not too much of a stretch of the imagination to think that someone might have bought a Crocodile from this shop and upon being faced with its inevitable growth, and after losing a few fingers on the way perhaps, ended up releasing it into the lake. Being absolutely ram-jammed full of snags and natural food the pit could have offered an ideal habitat for the prehistoric creature. Before too long the obscure pet shop closed down and my memory of it now seems like a mirage.

The lake became known as ‘Snake Pit’ and as far as I can remember the name was coined by Kevin Nash when he was fishing there on account of the prolific Grass Snake population.

The Snake Pit common was a highly sought after fish which rarely graced the bank. I used to cycle past from time to time, on my way to fish another lake, and I can clearly remember seeing swathes of determined anglers camped out on the bank-side for weeks on end comprising a watery siege of sorts. I thought this was all a bit strange at the time being fully ensconced in my simple boyish world of Tench fishing, but eventually I grew to understand.

I remember Damian Clarke catching the Snake pit Common (pictured above) back in 1991; it was truly an amazing fish and the largest common carp in the UK at the time. I used to see Damian from time to time creeping around that other lake I fished. I remember him as quiet, considerate and watchful like a fox.

If my memory serves me correctly it wasn’t too long after this that the water was taken over by a local angling club and some clever-clogs club official introduced a few scrappy random Carp from another water without vetting them first. Consequently disease took hold and unfortunately Snake Pit suffered a fish kill and the legendary carp met their demise.

After this great loss Snake Pit faded into the background with just the occasional pleasure angler wetting a line there for tiddlers; the bank side encampments of keen carpers became a distant memory.

A couple of years after this on a warm spring morning I happened to drop in to the lake to spend some time looking for snakes. I deemed it safe as there were none of the afore-mentioned delinquents on the prowl and I had some free time on my hands as it was half-term. I have always admired snakes and like all of nature’s creatures we have a good working relationship based upon mutual respect. I like to study their unique way of moving; their seemingly boneless undulations allowing for formidable speed and power. As they ‘read’ the air with that tell-tale serpentine tongue they also feel the vibration of all that surrounds them, the entirety of their limbless body listening like an elongated ear.

The banks were lushly overgrown and the scent of May blossom filled the air, that inspiring essence of springtime mingled with the whisper of summer. Creeping along a high footpath, barley discernible amidst the dew-soaked vegetation, I noticed that a long wide reed bed down below was looking particularly fishy, the reed stems luminous with their bright green hues. I crept down the steep bank to the waterside my army surplus trousers already soaked through with morning dew. Keeping my centre of gravity as low as possible (to minimise disturbance and maximise stability) I could see that some of the marginal fronds at the end of the reed bed were wobbling as if being prodded incessantly by someone below. I checked my descent and crouched a little lower. I breathed, relaxed and quietly observed.

The water was absolutely crystal clear, it seemed clearer than the air even. After ten minutes or so a jet black shape emerged from the reeds and drifted languidly through the water in front of me not 10 yards away. It was a submarine of a Tench and far bigger than any other I had ever seen or caught before. She had just been feeding amongst the reeds picking off snails and other such tasty treats. Mesmerised, I continued to watch and during the half-hour that followed I saw three more big Tench and a number of smaller ones all of them, in my book, well worth coaxing on to the bank and having a closer look at.

Cycling home I could hardly contain myself pedalling like a boy possessed. Racing through the door I garbled something unintelligible to my Mum who was well used to such fishing related behaviour and immediately got on to the phone to the secretary of the little club which was now in charge of the water:

Yes, I could join, he said.

No, the lake wasn’t ever busy. No Carp left now you see, he said.

Yes, a few Tench but difficult to catch, he added.

I posted off my cheque that day and within a week I was there on the bank well before dawn having hardly slept a wink, instead spending the night overwrought with excitement and eerie half-dreams of unseen monsters.

For the rest of that summer I had the entire overgrown lake to myself and I spent many a happy morning float fishing for the Tench. With no other anglers about and being much too early in the morning for the ‘Mad Max’ crew to bother me, it was a real luxury and I considered myself to be very fortunate.

I would plot up around 4.30am, hoist my trusty, rusty steed over the gate and nose around the banks. After finding a likely spot I would bed down and become deeply ensconced in the undergrowth merging with the lush surround of the blossoming dawn, just as I described earlier. With a flask of Earl Grey tea, a giant stack of sandwiches and a huge dollop of fishing solitude, I was in my element.

Fishing just a rod length out and using the lift method (such a great technique) I caught a treasure trove of big Tench that season. Hempseed, Casters and Corn were all the baits I used. I would weigh and measure the fish and perhaps take a photograph or two before releasing the creature back into the depths as quickly as possible taking great care all the time.

The following spring I decided to continue my Tench project and probably out of impatience for the warmer weather to arrive started a little earlier in mid-April during the Easter holidays. I was ready to resume what had become a pleasantly familiar routine the previous season but on my first morning something happened that was quite unexpected, a real ‘black swan’ event.

I had planted myself in a particularly snaggy corner of the lake that featured a small tangled forest of deceased half-submerged trees, their branches bleached by the sun like old bones. To my right was an expansive bed of old Canadian Pondweed and conjoining the two a long wide strip of reeds displaying a wonderful contrast between the soft shoots of spring and the dead, brittle stems from seasons past. I remember that it was a dull, cloudy morning and quite warm for the time of year with a south westerly breeze that puffed with the promise of becoming something more substantial later.

As usual I was float fishing just beyond the reeds with my old 12 foot float rod. It had originally been 13 foot but at some point someone had trodden on it and snapped off the end. Fortunately, after some home repairs by yours truly, the rod was greatly improved for Tench fishing being a little more robust.

It was a pleasant morning although by 7am I’d had no action at all which was unusual. I was feeling a little weary after my early start and was considering that it was perhaps too early in the year to be bagging big Tench. I had taken to entertaining myself by feeding a baby rat who had a smart pewter coat and we were getting on like a house on fire.

Anyway, I suddenly realised that I was completely distracted from fishing and had long forgotten about my float, instead revelling in sharing my sandwiches with Kenneth (the rat). I thought I’d better give a glance in that general direction just in case.

The way water appears changes constantly and encompasses seemingly infinite variations and fluctuations, a constant interplay between subtle and gross, stillness and motion. Sometimes, however, you just know that big fish are lurking about – you can feel it – and this was one of those times. As I scanned the surface the water around my float looked to be just too flat somehow and it immediately caught my attention, my weariness leaving me as my senses geared up a notch. Kenneth, who obviously sensed trouble ahead, hurriedly absconded to the nearest hole clutching a piece of bread. A large patch of bubbles appeared and plopped lazily on the surface and I thought I saw my float twitch. I blinked and by the time my blink was over my float was gone. At first I thought it was a mirage, a trick of light and water, or perhaps I was simply looking in the wrong place.

The next thing I knew I was clutching on to my rod now hooped right over in a severe arc and connected to a fish that was most definitely not a Tench. I hung on tight as the thing I was attached to powered off in a surge out toward the snags. I was using 6lb line and my little Mitchel reel was whirring dramatically, not a sound that I was used to at that point in my career. I could feel the violent curve of the rod all the way down through the cork handle and suddenly I was absolutely wide awake.

Through no obvious skill on my part the fish didn’t quite make it to the snags. Instead at the last moment it veered sharply around the other way (perhaps it saw the crocodile) and lodged itself firmly in the back of the thick bed of weed. I realised that I wasn’t breathing and remedied this with some long slow breathes. Now a little calmer, I had to decide what to do. No pressure from me would budge the thing and with 6 pound line and a floppy old float rod you don’t have the option of cranking up the power. I resorted to letting my line go slack in a bid that the fish would swim out of the weed by itself but it didn’t, it just stayed put. With various methods and means I spent about half an hour trying to coax the thing out from its weedy confines but eventually something gave and I slowly retrieved my line only to reveal a large ball of weed. Upon closer inspection the weed was teeming with tiny creatures: miniature snails, various larvae and all kinds of tiny watery beasts going about their beastly business.

I was disappointed but this was accompanied and quickly remedied by a feeling of curiosity as to what was responsible. Back at home later that day I realised that it must have been a Carp. Perhaps, I imagined wistfully, there was a lone carp of Snake Pit, one stolid survivor from the fish kill. If there was, I decided, then I would do my best to find out. It might even be gigantic! And obviously much stouter tackle would be required.

I returned on a clear fresh evening the following week determined to fish through the night sitting under my old brolly for shelter. With the light already starting to fade my Dad dropped me off at the gate. He gave me a 50 pence piece in case I needed to make an emergency call from the phone box a mile away and bidding me ‘tight lines’ for the night ahead I watched as his car disappeared into the dusky distance with silence gradually filling his absence. Shouldering my gear I crept cautiously around the lake a little nervous as to who or what I might find.

Fortunately, the lake was deserted and I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to contest with any of the local youths during the course of the evening. With my two beefy pike rods, reels loaded with 12lb Berkly Big Game line, a bucket of Tiger nuts and a bag of crushed hempseed I felt well prepared. I knew about boiled baits for Carp of course but Tiger nuts, first soaked in my own special concoction and then cooked in my mum’s pressure cooker, were all I could afford and being more natural they had my preference anyway. Consulting a book from the library I fashioned a couple of suitable carp rigs as best as I could using 15lb Kryston Silkworm braid and after a lot of fumbling around I was ready to go.

I opted to fish the same swim as where I had lost the mysterious monster the previous week. I settled in and full of anticipation placed one bait carefully in the margins along the reeds and one much further out on a weedy gravel strip I had discovered when I was pike fishing.

In my local tackle shop I had found some solid PVA bags which I thought would be an excellent tool to help me present my bait amongst the weed. They were quite rudimentary in those days and took ages to melt and release ones bait. I loaded up one of these ‘bad boys’ with crushed hemp and Tigers, stuffing the bag full to bursting and then perforating it all over to help it sink. As well as being an excellent attractant the crushed seeds served to cover the nuts, coated in their own viscous fermented slime, and stop them from melting the PVA before I had the chance to cast the concoction out.

The PVA bag was massive and when I lobbed it out it took all of my effort to get it to the spot I wanted. It hit the water with a mighty splash and I looked on rather cynically watching it slowly submerge like a sinking ship, a tell-tale trail of crushed seed bubbling to the surface a few minutes later. With my rods out I settled in for a the night and scanned the water as the sun disappeared behind the trees.

It was an entirely uneventful evening and quite the disappointment after I had as usual built myself up into a frenzy of anticipation. The only thing of note was that as I drifted in and out of sleep, freezing cold on my uncomfortable chair, I was serenaded by the beautiful haunting song of a Nightingale in a willow tree just along the bank. That mournful tune bled into my fitful slumber and I dreamed the lake slowly filled and flooded to engulf me as I slept; a cool all encompassing immersion that carried me off far across a dark watery land and out toward the waiting sea.

Morning rolled around as it always does and I was relieved to wake up and discover that the lake hadn’t flooded at all and everything was as it should be. Helping myself to a tepid cup of coffee from my flask I surveyed the scene still hopeful of a monstrous interjection. By about 7am it was time to pack up and with my Dad due to collect me on his way to work at 8am sharp I had to be ready to go and waiting at the gate. I slowly packed down my gear a little forlorn at the lack of action but leaving my rods out until the very last minute, ever the optimist.

It was a beautiful sunny morning, quite chilly with a steady breeze blowing across the lake directly into my little camp. I had accepted my defeat and was now just looking forward to going to home, cooking myself a hearty breakfast and sleeping in a comfortable bed until the afternoon. I also had my GCSE Art coursework to complete, now well overdue, and it was starting to play on my mind most annoyingly.

With everything else packed away I wound in the marginal rod rather absent mindedly. I was now concerned with other things and a long to-do list was rapidly building in my mind. I turned to pack the rod down and just as I did so I heard a strange click and then the urgent buzzing whirr of the clutch on the other reel. Out of the corner of my eye I saw that my remaining rod was bouncing in its rod rests with line stripping out from the reel at a rate of knots. For a brief moment I was dumbfounded. I was deliriously tired and I couldn’t figure out why my rod would be behaving so strangely. Suddenly the lights switched on and I made a dash for the action.

I’d like to say that what followed next was an epic battle but it wasn’t really. I immediately felt that the fish was quite heavy, heavier than anything I had caught before, but it came in to the margins quite well behaved, unbothered even, simply staying deep in a lazy and casual manner. We then spent about fifteen minutes slowly to-ing and fro-ing up and down the margins as it halfheartedly tried to snag me up in either the dangling branches or the waterlogged roots of the overhanging trees. My arm started to get very tired from being tethered to such a belligerent beast and I heard the distant toot of my Dad’s car from the gate over on the other side of the lake. I didn’t want to make him late for work but at the same time I was into something rather serious at my end.

When the fish eventually rolled on the surface I knew it was a good carp. I sunk my landing net deep into the margins and slowly drew the fish over the cord, willing that nothing would go wrong at the last moment. Then just like that it was in. I stood there staring into the net in disbelief; there was a large dark shape wallowing below, a fascinating monster from the depths.

The familiar sound of a whistle brought me back to myself and I turned to see my Dad picking his way down into my swim looking quite out of place amongst the undergrowth in his smart but well-worn work suit. I was worried that I was about to get a telling off for being late but one look at his face told me that he wasn’t cross in the slightest. In fact, he was just as interested as to what lay in the net as I.

Cautiously peering in he cursed under his breath in wonder,

“Bloody hell Sammy” he said.

It was a large dark mirror carp, well over twenty pounds and quite magnificent. My Dad and I were both elated. I was happy that he was there to share the moment since it was him that infected me with the fishing bug when I was about four years old. Being a keen photographer he took some pictures which sit in an old album that is now long lost, but that doesn’t matter, my memory of it is crystal clear.

Funnily enough I didn’t fish Snake Pit much after that, although I did manage two more smaller carp on another trip. I deduced that these few fish comprised the remnants of the ones so unwisely introduced a few years back. In low numbers and in that fertile, undisturbed environment they had flourished most beautifully to form the beginnings of a new era.

The main reason I stopped fishing there was that I eventually had a run in with the Mad Max crew despite having done so well to avoid them thus far. I suppose it was inevitable really. After being pelted with rocks from a distance one morning my response of some highly provocative expletives to the surly youths responsible inspired one of them to bustle down into my swim and pull a handgun on me. No shots were fired, no real harm was done and in hindsight the gun would have been a replica, although it looked very real to me at the time. It was a shame that my adventure at Snake Pit had to conclude in such a way but all good things come to an end as they say.

Along the way through observation and experience I’ve learned that endings and beginnings are simply the head and tail of the same fish. They are inseparable, shaping each other just as night shapes day and like all things in this world they are inextricably linked. For if you quieten your mind, gently and gradually over time, the veils that obscure us from seeing things as they really are start to lift. Spending lots of time in nature simply watching is a wonderful way to do this. And what better way than Angling?

It was soon after this incident that I started my martial arts training, something that changed all aspects of my life (including my fishing) in an enormously positive way. All I needed was this unpleasant prod in the right direction, a catalyst of sorts. Also as an unexpected bi-product of catching those Snake Pit carp I was invited to join a small syndicate on a most beautiful and secluded little lake which completely captured my heart for a time. Unbeknownst to me great times lay ahead for I had fallen head first into a new pool of passion: pursuing large carp.