Frost crunched under my feet as I stepped out of the car onto the sloping banks of the Sixteen Foot Drain. I took a deep breath of the chill air and looked around at my surroundings with appreciation. Fenland is "big sky country", and despite the temperature registering only marginally higher than zero, the sky was blue, pleasant and carrying no threat. It'd been two months since I'd last fished. A long time. Too long. It was good to be back.
In dribs and drabs, and wrapped against the cold, other anglers appeared, ready for the annual Christian Anglers pike fish-in, a friendly get-together where while catching fish is every bit the intention, the pursuit of predators is reasonably casually undertaken, and the landing of pike is secondary to the renewing of friendships.
By mid morning, there were 14 anglers drawn from the Midlands, the South East, Yorkshire and a handful of local "Fen Tigers". Soon rods were pointing like weapons protruding from a machine gun nest towards the drain's far bank. Deadbaits of various sizes and types were positioned on the near marginal shelf, middle of the drain or far bank according to the intuition or theory of the individual angler and the assembled fisher-folk huddled down and waited..... and waited. And waited some more.
Roy had a run within minutes of setting up, but his strike met with nothing, the pike having dropped the bait, but by midday no more action had been forthcoming, and the aroma of burning charcoal drew the anglers towards the gathering point at the top of the bank high above the drain where Andy, young Ben and John were cooking burgers, sausages and bacon. Being the "resident clergyman" it fell to me to say grace, before the meat feast was fallen upon by the assembled throng. With hunger satisfied, I was asked to say a few words, a little sermonette of less than 10 minutes that linked the story of a lavatorial mishap and the memory of my first ever tench with the message of the Christian gospel and Jesus' claim to be "the Way, the Truth and the Life"- yes, I know it sounds an implausible set of links, and you probably had to be there but it seemed to be a well received little homily.
And so, now physically and spiritually fed, it was time to recast and rejoin the battle with the Sixteen Foot's reluctant predators. I had opted to fish a herring three quarters of the way across and a small joey mackerel closer in, both presented on the bottom under floats. Unfortunately, said floats remained motionless. It was Pete who, characteristically, decided to change things around and take the initiative, winding in his deadbaits, grabbing his baitcasting outfit and setting out on foot further down the drain. His thoroughly deserved reward was a brace of small jacks that took a liking to his deep diving firetiger crankbait, and turned out to be the only pike caught by the group.
We had once again been guests of Ray Field, a local angler of repute who owns the fishing on this section of drain, a proper gentleman whose company is always a pleasure. Ray's son, Andrew, earns his living as a builder of fishing rods, and a master float maker, and he had made a special bespoke pike float as a prize for the captor of the largest pike, and with Pete the only one to catch, the prize was his. A real object of beauty, the float features tiny hand painted ICTHUS fish symbols and the words of Matthew 4:19 in which Jesus encourages his disciples to become "fishers of men"- a wonderful gesture from a master craftsman.
The day ended with a presentation to Pete, the prize being handed over by John MacAngus, one of the steering team of Christian Anglers, and the organiser of this particular event. Goodbyes were said, tackle was packed into cars and vans, the unanimous consensus was that a good time had been had by all (it is, remember, called "fishing" and not "catching") and a procession of cars headed out to return from whence they'd came, with excited conversation in cars about our next get-together, a Springtime quest for tench in a reed fringed, lily pad dotted, lake in Leicestershire.
And so, for another year it was farewell to the Fens, whose drains have been responsible for the capture of my personal best zander, a handful of good pike, the occasional jack, and now my first ever Fenland blank, and- most important of all- a collection of uniformly wonderful memories. Bleak, sometimes barren, but always beautiful. I'll be back....