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Tenching, February 2020

Updated: Feb 3

It was a beautiful, bright blue morning with frost on the grass and ice lidding the puddles: the best type of morning for a winter swim and a dog walk round the lake to warm up afterwards.

I stopped to chat to an angler who’d been night fishing for carp.

‘Any joy?’ I asked.

‘Naah,’ he said, totally untroubled. He said there were 40-50 carp in the water, active through the winter months, some of them quite big and worth waiting for. He’d be back another night, no worries.

And it seems like this is the thing about anglers, they are so very zen: calm, attentive, intuitive, able to absorb themselves entirely in their task. Though they may dwell in quiet hope, there is no taxing expectation for an outcome..

There’s something in that, no?

Carp are seen as ‘elite’ fish, the prize, bringing luck to those who catch them. But me, being a contrary type, am more drawn to the fish that aren’t quite centre stage. Bream are present in the lake in diminishing numbers as the invasive signal crayfish feed on their spawn. But I found myself inescapably drawn to the tench. Much maligned in folklore for the thick slime that coats their scales and their tendency to feed in weedy, brackish waters, tench are also known as ‘doctor fish.’ As far back as 1653 Izaak Walton wrote in ‘The Compleat Angler’ (still in print!) of the tench’s ability to heal other fish, including the pike, and of its love of gravel pits.

Something about the tench’s purported healing powers, the quest for the carp, the zen nature of the angler and my own affinity with water has led me to this month’s poem. Written as a haibun, an ancient Japanese form that tells of a journey in prose and ends in a haiku, the poem – I hope – nods to the ways in which lakes, rivers, streams and seas can provide solace and strength to those that love and spend time in and around them.


JLM Morton

She took the Spine Road to the lake, hunched against drenching squalls of camper vans and gravel trucks. Through a latched gate at the southern end. She found the mud and writhed in it with a pocket full of worms gathered from the verge. Any sign of movement, the book said, and the tench will make inquiries. Physician of fishes. Lover of foul water. Unwholesome meat. Bare willow cords hung from the branches and brushed her unblinking eyes.


New Year, new you, she’d thought and washed her hair. She blow dried it and, for once, left it down. Tucked a lock behind her ear. Even so he said she was a munter, bottom feeder, hair shit coloured anyway. Then he tore the Nordmann Fir from its stand, still hung with coloured baubles, threw it out front where even the bricks smelt bad and a St. George hung limp from the fencepost.

Floodwaters made the approach impassable in places, but she waded along the crest of the road’s camber, past hedgerows where Police tape snagged on blackthorn and a heron’s wings beat overhead. She bought all the bait she could afford - a loaf of brown bread and a jar of honey – squatted by the reedbeds and margins where the silt weed grew, moulding sticky balls with her fingers. At last light she woke from a dream of pale children calling and chasing her off with notes from the future -

the quarry surfaced,

a moonrise of gold, black, red

slithered to her chest.

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Image: Illustration of a tench (tinca tinca) by Sarah Bowdich c.1828 (Natural History Museum)

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