To Southwold in Suffolk, where the long sandy beaches with their abrupt drop offs provide good conditions for sea angling. The mackerel and bass will be moving on by now: autumn is the time for flatfish.
We rig up our long beachcasting rods on a beach to the south of the pier, near the centre of town. Though tempted by the cove to the north labelled ‘Sole Bay’ on our maps, the wizened bait-shop owner who sells us our ragworm baits tells us that the commercial fishermen have moved in, and there aren’t many sole left there. He’s a friendly, patient man; happy to answer our questions while his friends, a group of Jehovah’s witnesses, stand by. He taps his scriptures while we um and ah over weights and rigs. He is a fisher of men, but doesn’t try to convert us.
Down on the beach, we run long lines terminating in a paternoster rig: two hooks bristling off the main line on their tiny booms, and a break-away weight. This will anchor itself into the sandy bottom, keeping the line taught like a guitar string until we detect a bite and rip it free. We bait our hooks with ragworm (avoiding their flashing pincers as we do so), cast, and prop our rods up against tripods fashioned from the wooden poles of a windbreak. Then we wait.
There’s something hypnotising about the way the rod-tip registers its environment, translating the crashing of waves and the gentle heave-ho of the tide into a series of staccato jags and jiggles. To fish at sea you must learn to read the rod – learn to recognise the difference between a bite and the caress of a piece of weed crossing your line. We make many false strikes before we land anything, before a fish comes and plays the line, awakening it.
And then, suddenly, a wild shaking makes it clear, like an epiphany, that something has happened – something is alive down there. I quickly strike and feel the reassuring tug of the weight as well as something else – a darting, living force at the end of several hundred feet of line. The fish fights cleverly, running side on to the beach to use the full force of its body to pull against me, but in the end it comes in: a sparkling, good size sea bass.
A few hours later, after the tide has gone out and then come in again; after we’ve eaten pies and drunk beer and caught a few more fish; once night has fallen (forcing us to attach small glowsticks to the end of our rods to mark them against the cloudy blackness of the sky so that they bob like wobbling stars); we catch what we have come to catch. The rod judders into life again, working not with the rhythms of waves and currents but against something alive. I strike and reel in, the weight on the line altering with each turn of the reel. Eventually out of the breakers emerges the flat, bent head of a sole. Odd fish, with their wonky eyes, sideways mouths and frilly skirts, they seem embarrassed to be caught mid-evolve, wrenched over like ancient hags into grim parodies of an even more ancient fish. They have not yet learnt symmetry.