A harbour in winter looks very different from the way it appears in the balmy days of summer. Then, with hot sunshine, colourfully dressed holidaymakers and bustling boats, it’s a busy place. But in late October, when the equinoctial gales start pounding the shoreline, everything gets battened down for winter. Heavy seas send spray flying over the harbour wall, and the wind whistles past the shuttered ice cream and amusement stalls, driving the sand ahead of it. Bits of seaweed and rubbish flap and fret as the wind hurries along the tide line.
The boats are battened down too. As they ride the swell, the trim yachts and pleasure craft look less colourful salted with drifting spray. Their stays ring against their masts in a chorus of tapping, and the gale whistles and whines as it gusts through the rigging. The old trawlers and crabbing boats tied up along the quayside now seem rustier than ever. On the quay a few fishermen are cleaning and mending their nets. Occasionally one of them glances up at the high rollers foaming past the harbour entrance. Says one: There’ll be some fish in when this lot passes.
But not today. The clouds are low and in a great haste. On the horizon the sky is dark and leaden – worse is yet to come. The fisherman straightens his back and reaches for his tobacco pouch. Looks as though we are in for a drop of rain, he says. Still, on the shipping forecast they said that it would fine away by dawn.
Out on the pier head the stone is puddled with spray. A flock of black-headed gulls huddles together, leaning into the wind. All the while the waves churn and bang against the harbour wall. Along the nearby beach, the surf is screaming ashore, white cloud for as far as the eye can see. Farther offshore, the coffee-coloured sea carries rafts of weed, bottles and lumps of timber. What a stir up! The rollers are so large that they can be felt on the sea bed. On the sea floor lugworm, razorfish, seamice, cockles, whelks, mussels, hermit crabs, and all manner of other invertebrates are having a very bumpy ride. Some, drifting out of control, are being pushed towards the surf line — towards the carnage that lies in wait for them there.
Flounders, pouting, codling, whiting, small coalfish and soles are all active in the tumultuous water. They’ve been grabbing their share of the feast. Some of the smaller fish are sheltering in the mouth of the harbour, where a shoal of sprats is keeping out of the worst of the weather. On the sea bed beneath, conger eels snap up anything that comes their way.
As dusk falls the wind whips furiously round the house, blowing over the dustbin. But inside, beside a lively fire, tackle is being checked and traces carefully made up and coiled. The reel — faintly scented with oil – spins sweetly, ready to deliver the longest of casts.
Out in the shed, four score of black lug-worm lie sandwiched between sheets of newspaper. They were dug in the dark by lamplight. Standing nearby is a bucket of razorfish and other shellfish smashed by the waves and picked off the beach.
Around midnight the temperature begins to drop sharply. Outside the door the wind barely rustles the rose bushes. Stars gleam brilliantly from the dark sky between breaks in the clouds.
High water will be at about 8:00am. The two hours up to high water are best, you tell yourself, and set the alarm clock for four. All too soon it shatters a deep sleep — the price for being a keen angler. On the harbour wall ice skims the puddles. A thin cold wind is blowing off the land but soon the pressure lamp is lit and hissing cheerfully in the darkness. The swell is still running but without the wind to drive it, the waves can only rustle menacingly beneath the harbour wall. The two rods are both baited. Lugworm and whelk are crammed on to one of the size 6/0 hooks and three razorfish are partially threaded on to the other. The cocktail bait is blasted out to sea, while the other is thrown into the surf that is now breaking over the sand bar at the harbour mouth.
While tightening up the second rod the grip lead springs out of the sea bed, the slack line shining as it billows in the lamplight. Out in the black sea, shoals of cod are travelling along the shoreline, mopping up the victims of yesterday’s storm and the bundle of lug and whelk was just what the fourteen-pounder (6.35kg) was looking for. When it feels itself being pulled inexorably towards the land, it panics and then runs, and runs again. It shakes its head but nothing can reduce the unrelenting pressure. It wallows at the base of the harbour wall with no will left to fight, then allows itself to be towed round to the steps and netted. While rebaiting, the other rod tip suddenly drags down dramatically – so hard that the reel clutch squeaks and the rod rest almost collapses. Quickly you grab the rod, but the line is all slack. You reel like crazy -nothing. Reel more and abruptly the tension comes on as something large threshes on the surface just outside the lamplight, then dives in a burst of spray.
By the violence of it all it has to be a bass and the jagging, thumping fight confirms it. Some time elapses before the fish lies beaten beside the steps. At 12 lb (5.4kg) it’s huge; quite short, but fat as butter after summer brutality and greed. A fishing boat looms out of the blackness, diesel engines throbbing quietly, its light gleaming on the dark waters as the fishermen go to work.
The tide has risen now and the waves splash over the pier head more frequently. In the east the greying sky indicates the arrival of dawn. Soon the rods are back in business, but now it’s the pouting and whiting pecking at the baits. Somehow a 2 lb sole (0.9kg) manages to eat its way around the bend of the big hook.
Now the bass rod is alive again – they certainly like those razorfish. But this is no bass. The fight is different – thumping, then straining and then nothing. The trace tells the story – bitten off by a conger! The cod are still feeding and after rebait-ing, the tackle is only out there for a few minutes before the rod arches over and springs straight again. It’s a seven-pounder (3.2kg) this time. As dawn lightens the sky, more bites come from cod and whiting. These are smaller fish now, but the bag is starting to look impressive. One of the rods twitches and then stops, then twitches again – probably a tiddler. Suddenly it dips and slackens off again. Reel in some more line and a definite bump is felt. Set the hook and something large thumps back from the other end. After a struggle a large cod surfaces, the hook just inside its lip and a tiny whiting strung alongside. It allows itself to be netted – 23 lb (10.4kg) on the spring balance. As the daylight grows stronger the bites die away – even from the tiddlers. More fishing boats are on the move and the new day is well under way. It has been a chilly but successful vigil. Across the harbour the lights are on in the cafe. With the fish and tackle loaded into the car, the thought of breakfast becomes irresistible.