Dateline: July 18, 2010 – Marlow, England
I don’t always have to catch a new species to enjoy a day on the water. It helps, but it’s not always necessary.
Many times, I get asked where my favorite fishing place is, and of course, there is no one answer. There are, however, a few treasured locations where I could go again and again, either because there is always something new to catch or because it is simply a magical place, even long after I have caught everything that swims there. So I probably have a top five, even though it probably lists at least 10 locations.
One of these places is the River Thames, west of London, in a small town named Marlow. Marlow is a millenium-old village that has morphed into a fashionable bedroom community, while somehow maintaining that high British standard of quaintness. It is home to the first all-metal suspension bridge in the world, a one-lane wonder that causes painful traffic challenges each morning, and it boasts my favorite hotel in all the world, The Compleat Angler, named after Izaak Walton’s 17th-century fishing treatise. The hotel is right on the weir, meaning I can pretty much stumble out of bed and head down to the lawn to cast for pike. This should make it clear why it is my favorite hotel. (And it has fish wallpaper, and fish prints in the bar. I want to hire their decorator.) I have stayed there enough times where they have even assigned me a regular room – #9 – with a view of the weir and the village and only one flight of stairs to contend with.
Marlow Cathedral and Bridge
Home away from home
Hotel, Cathedral, and River – Room #9 is between 3rd and 4th chimneys from the left
Over the years, I have pretty much picked the Thames dry for new species – three of the more difficult were the diminutive gudgeon, which everyone but me seemed to be able to catch, the barbel, which I only caught because of a bad case of food poisoning, and the tench, which I had begun to think didn’t exist at all but was simply a prank pulled on visiting anglers. Roger Barnes, my trusted guide on this river, also tells the potentially apocryphal but entertaining tale of a rare and savage river denizen – the Saber-Toothed Gudgeon, Gobius draculus, known to carry off sheep and virgins. Still, it’s always great to spend a day with Roger – and the fishing and scenery are such a delight I go whenever I can. The stories from Roger’s adventures in the sixties alone are worth the price of admission. “Tell me again about your trip to Mexico.” “Well, I have the stamp in my passport, but it’s a bit of a blur after that.”
And there are a couple of new critters that I could technically scrape up, just to add some vague hope for a species. There is always a shot at a threespine stickleback, for example, and of course the possibility of a stone loach. But these are remote possibilities, and let’s face it, I just love to catch pike. It’s a fish I can relate to – aggressive, carnivorous, primitive, nearsighted, and not all that bright.
Northern Pike – the dangerous end
And they love to hit lures. And I love to buy pike lures, even though I don’t live within 500 miles of a good pike lake. Pike lures are noted for their often comical sizes and colors, and it somehow feels rewarding to actually be able to use one of these lures that spends most of the year hanging in my garage, attracting the bewildered stares of visitors.
So it was that Marta and I headed down to the hotel lawn to meet Roger for a day on the Thames. Roger’s boat, also called “The Compleat Angler,” is moored on the property and he has a carefully considered ritual each time he takes it out. There are seats and gear to move from his car in the parking lot to the boat, the cover to be carefully removed and stored, the gear arranged just so. There is a comfort to this, and to what has become a familiar place to me. There are familiar spots up and down the river where I have taken pike, in all four seasons, from the lawn at the hotel to the middle of the weir pool to the break in the willows on the far side, to the back weedbed at Temple Weir to the retaining wall at Hurley – it all feels like home. There are a lot of memories here – my first fish in England, 9 new species, Marta’s first pike. And Roger seems to remember every fish he has seen caught here – “Remember that 12 pounder you took from the willows a few years back?” “It was 16 pounds, Roger.” “Oh, of course it was, Steve.”
Marta and Roger go through the Marlow lock
We launched about 9am and headed up the river through the Marlow lock. Going through the locks can be time-consuming, but it is fascinating – each one has its own unique history and most have been in place for hundreds of years. (Like some of the lock keepers.) Near the Marlow lock is the old Marlow millrace, where, according to William the Conqueror’s 1066 inventory of England (the “Domesday Book,”) there sat a mill, the only economic asset mentioned for Marlow at that time. And now it has a Starbuck’s. Progress?
We wound our way up the Thames, passing stately homes once owned by Hollywood stars, a 9th century church, and a field where the locals lost a battle against Viking invaders sometime around 1000 AD. Roger isn’t quite old enough to remember this, but he tells the story as if he was there. Speaking of ancient traditions, Roger is also always trying to get me to eat some form of meat pie. I view these as suspicious, because any meat worth eating should be openly displayed, not hidden in some sort of pastry. I was truly concerned the time when Roger brought a can of Spam into the boat, but it just turns out that Spam is excellent barbel bait. (Roger calls Spam “Reconstituted Animal Slurry.”)
Bisham Abbey. Center portion constructed in 9th century
Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in this house
Our adventure up the river yielded even more charming scenery – Temple Weir, the Christopher Wren estate, old working river boats, but unfortunately only one pike, and even more unfortunately, this was caught by Marta. While Marta lives to catch species that I have not, she is also delighted by catching things when I do not. So she was needling me the entire way back down the river, with unnecessarily nasty tidbits like “I wonder if Jaime Hamamoto has caught more pike than you?” This, of course, did not bother me at all, because, as we have covered in previous episodes, I am NOT COMPETITIVE. And to make things worse, it’s usually Marta and Roger who spend most of the time talking, generally about music. “You PLAYED with Barrymore Barlow? What’s he like?” “Well, like Ozzy Osborn, but much less confused.”
Roger gets under the hood
Another thing that makes the river such a pleasing experience, even if I had not caught a pike yet, is the wildlife. Roger can point out dozens of bird species, some of the more spectacular being the kingfisher – a swift blaze of brilliant blue, and the kite, an enormous scavenger rescued from near-extinction in the 1970s. There are also swans everywhere, although these are not quite as regal as their marketing people would have you believe. In many cases, they are pointlessly hostile and will follow the boat, hissing and spluttering. On one occasion, Roger and his girlfriend Dee were dive-bombed by a crazed swan for about 20 minutes. There are also a lot of Canada geese, an import which Roger claims have crowded out the “proper British geese.”
Resident swan, likely preparing to attack
A swan, not to be confused with Aswan, which is in Egypt
Ducks on the hotel lawn
A handsome pose coerced with some bread
On the way back down to the hotel, we set up the boat in Marlow Weir, just a good cast off the hotel lawn, just to try one more spot and finish off the day. The roaring water provided a pleasant background, the sun was out, and everything seemed great – right until Marta hooked another fish. Judging from the fight, it looked substantial, and as Roger moved over to net the pike, it surfaced, and yes, it was big – over 10 pounds. (Actually, it turned out to be 11 – a beautiful fish by any standard.) “Smashing good fish, Marta.” “Why yes, Roger, and that’s two for me and, lets see, ZERO for Mr. ESPN article up in the bow.”
Marta’s 11 pound beast of a pike. Roger is NOT throwing up – he’s just washing his hands
I continued fishing with half my brain and moping with the other, absent-mindedly casting a large Rapala toward where Marta’s fish had been caught, when I got full-on blasted. Something grabbed that plug and tried to tear it in half, and then took off toward London. At last, I was hooked up, and this was a big fish. “Big fish.” I said.
“Uh-oh.” Marta said to Roger. “He’s usually right when he says that.” I could see the slightest worry creep on to her brow, that my fish might be larger than hers. I didn’t say anything else, but I knew it was an “alligator” – likely the biggest pike I had ever hooked in England. The fight took about 10 minutes and featured several blazing runs and deep, bulldogging dives for the bottom. I kept the pressure on, and finally, after several shorter runs, she surfaced just beside the boat. Looking up at me was one good eye and one long-since glassed over from some misfortune. This was an old fish, a veteran of many winters here and the grizzled queen of this pool. I wanted to just get her back in the water as soon as I could after a quick weigh-in and photo session. She was 21 pounds, my biggest in England and my 3rd biggest ever, proof that patience occasionally has rewards and that there is justice in the universe.
“The Marlow Monster” – 21 pounds of heaving redemption
As the sun started to lean to the west, Marta began to tactfully hint for us to call it a day. Roger, ever polite, would have stuck it our until dark, but it was probably fair to let Marta get to a bathroom. I kept at it for another 30 minutes on the bank and yes, I did catch another pike, so we had 2 each and mine was much, much bigger so there. But is so hard to make that last cast really be your last cast. “Steve, the restaurants will be closing in an hour. Perhaps you would prefer to dine alone on something from the gas station?” “OK, this will be my last cast. Really.”
There is a timelessness to this place; the knowledge that people were enjoying much the same thing hundreds of years ago and will hopefully be doing the same hundreds of years from now. These are rich and pleasant hours, by legend not counting toward your allotment of time on this planet. And so, after Marta finally peeled me away from the bank by the weir, and after I had gotten back to room #9 via the secret back hallways, we went for a quiet dinner at Chez Gerard and walked home in the late summer twilight, through the churchyard cemetery and over the suspension bridge. We had a quiet drink in the Compleat Angler Bar, then retired for the night, my dreams filled with 30 pound pike, hers with rare species I had never caught. Norway was next.
If you’re going to be in the London area, you can call Roger at +44 11 8934 2981. He especially enjoys saltwater angling on really rough days.