“New lake record for carp!” I told Rob as he joined us. “Yeah?” “61 lb common! Fantastic fish. Must be one of those new fish you put in.” “But I haven’t put a common in,” frowned Rob. “Are you sure about the weight? None of my commons will be close to that. Barely touching 40 lbs I’d have thought. They were all less than 30 lbs two years ago when I put them in.” “It was definitely 61 lb,” Fi shrugged. This was all very puzzling. “And it was definitely a common?” I did a mental eye roll. Julian knew I knew a common from a Royal or a mirror but he still felt compelled to ask the question. It was clearly bugging him.
Chapter 10 A Fish Called Wander
Rob must have been aware of me glaring at him across the lake. Luckily he misinterpreted it as me still being narked about the food because I saw him round up his team, apart from Josh, and load them into his van.
“Hey, where’s everyone going?” Andy asked. He’d stopped by for a chat.
“To refill the food stores. You bloody greedy bastards ate all the food while my back was turned.”
“I fancy another trip into town, actually,” said Andy. “I’ll see if the others want to come too.”
“Hey, we should …” try and catch up, I was going to say, but Andy was gone. I shrugged. They’d only be out a couple of hours and it tended to be fairly dead mid-morning anyway.
Derek and Greg disappeared off to Coussac with Andy. So it was just Fi, me and Josh.
Fi had turned up for another cup of tea. She looked at her watch. “Perfect timing. I’ve been getting touches between ten and eleven the last couple of mornings. I’m going to try and get whoever it is today.”
“What’ll you use?” I asked.
“Well, I’m going to cast all three rods as close as I dare to the same spot. I’ll put sweetcorn on one, pellets on another and, hmm, still trying to decide for the last one. I’ve been using crab and cranberry, but I’m thinking that’s not working too well.”
“Why not some of Norm’s lucky halibut boilies?” He’d left plenty behind.
“Go on then,” she agreed. I poured out a few from the pack for myself and gave her the rest.
“There you are. Now go for it! Give me a shout when you get him.”
“I will,” she smiled, pleased at my optimism.
But she hesitated a moment. We both looked at each other. I wanted to say something, but I didn’t know what. Something to mark our little adventure together last night, and the bit of closeness that had emerged between us. Fi seemed to be on the edge of making a remark, but just then Josh gave a shout.
“Lads, can you give me a hand?” He was playing a sizeable looking carp, judging from what we could see as the fish’s back broke the water.
“I’ll go,” I told Fi. “You go and get your lurker. We need it more than ever, now that Josh is catching!”
She nodded, and turned to go. I jogged round to the far side, and netted Josh’s carp. Not too disastrous for us. It was a 26 pounder, but very broad for a fish of that weight. I’d always found that French carp tended to have large football bellies, but this one seemed to have put his fat on his shoulders.
Josh returned The Bouncer, as we’d nicknamed him, to the water. We chatted for a while, then I remembered that I ought to be catching fish. Fi had cast all her rods out now and was stood by them, watching the water intently.
“What’s she up to, then?” asked Josh, with a smile.
“She has a regular visitor hovering around her lines this time of day,” I explained. “She’s determined to get him. I hope she does.”
“So long as he’s only small,” cautioned Josh. “We’re gonna win again.”
“The fat lady ain’t singing yet,” I reminded him.
I went back to my swim, cracked open a can of coke and was about to put my rods out, when Fi gave a shout.
“Marcus! I’ve got him. He’s huge!”
I left the coke and sprinted along the bank to her. She was playing her fish, and her rod was bent to a worrying degree. That was something heavy on her hook all right.
“He’s heading for the snags. Damn! If he gets in those, I’ll lose him. Bugger.”
She was right. These fish knew this piece of water. Fi was fishing towards the promontory that jutted into the shallower end of the lake. Along the shore were some branches and stumps, perfect for the carp to hold up in to avoid being caught. And perfect for snagging lines on.
“Raise your rod,” I advised. “Walk backwards out of your swim. Keep the pressure on him, Fi, so he can’t tangle you up.”
Fi did as I said and then managed to reel in some more line. She was red in the face and you could see it was taking all the strength in her arms to keep her rod up.
“Doing great,” I encouraged her. “You’ll get him.”
“I hope so. This is definitely my biggest yet.”
Just then its back broke the water. It was a silvery, scaly common carp. Fi had seen that too. She glanced at me and grinned. She’d get her common after all this holiday. But it took her another quarter of an hour to get him to the bank so I could net him.
“Awesome Fi! He must be 55 lbs or so,” I told her as I got him into the net. He was huge. “Julian must have put some new stock in this year. I don’t think this common was here before. Jules never mentioned him.”
I bellowed across for Josh to come over to help me lift him, but there was no response. And no sign of him. He was probably plugged into music in his bivvie, or asleep. I slipped into the lake. Fi laid down her rod and joined me, and between us we lifted the carp carefully out. He was a beauty. Pretty much perfect, apart from a slightly battered tail. Fi was bubbling with delight.
“We must take millions of photos,” she gushed. “The others won’t believe us otherwise.”
We got him onto the bank. Fi dehooked him on her mat and splashed a drop of Klinik on the wound. Then I lifted him into the weigh sling for her.
“He’s nearer 60 I reckon,” I assessed.
“Really? Oh wow!” She looked thrilled.
“OK. Take the reading, Fi,” I grunted as I heaved the sling off the ground, holding the grab bar of the scales.
“59 … 62 … 60 …61.5 … 61 … 61, yep, it’s holding at 61. Dead on.”
Gently I laid the fish back down in the sling onto Fi’s mat. Then we did a high five.
“61 pounds. Omigod, I don’t believe it,” she squealed. “Oh. Did you zero the scales before you weighed him? Because my sling weighs a pound. We’ll have to knock that off.”
“I zeroed them, don’t panic!” I laughed. “He’s 61. Awesome Fi!”
“Omigod. Omigod. Omigod. Sorry, I’m doing a Norm, repeating myself,” she realised, laughing.
“Come on, pose with your fish,” I ordered, picking up her camera.
“I don’t think I can lift him,” she said. “I’d be scared of dropping him anyway. I’ll kneel behind him, shall I?”
“That looks good,” I nodded, checking it out through the viewfinder.
I shot off about a dozen photos with her camera, then quickly did the same with mine.
“Fantastic, Fi. Now, let’s get him back in.”
We folded the sling around Fi’s fish and I eased myself back into the lake with it. The carp took a few moments to reorientate itself and recover, then glided off into the silty water. Fi was grinning like the Cheshire Cat when I climbed out again. I couldn’t help myself. I dropped the sling and gave her a great big hug. I almost kissed her fabulous hair but stopped myself in time. That might be going too far – for the time being anyway.
“I hope the guys will be back soon,” she smiled. “I want to tell everyone about my fish!”
“Yeah, new PB. You should be mega proud.”
Fi glowed happily.
“Hey! I think that must be the lake record for carp too,” I realised.
“Seriously?” Fi was staggered.
“I’m sure it was Rob’s 49 lb Royal from last year which was the record. I’ll text Julian and ask him.”
But I didn’t need to. As I picked my phone up from the bank where I’d put it before sploshing into the lake for Fi’s fish, I noticed Julian down by the cabins. I waved to him to come over.
“New lake record for carp!” I told him as he joined us.
“You beat Rob’s 49er then?”
“Not me. Fi. She’s smashed the record!”
“61 lb common! Fantastic fish. Must be one of those new fish you put in.”
“But I haven’t put a common in,” frowned Rob. “Are you sure about the weight? None of my commons will be close to that. Barely touching 40 lbs I’d have thought. They were all less than 30 lbs two years ago when I put them in.”
“It was definitely 61 lb,” Fi shrugged.
This was all very puzzling.
“And it was definitely a common?” I did a mental eye roll. Julian knew I knew a common from a Royal or a mirror but he still felt compelled to ask the question. It was clearly bugging him.
I reached for my camera in my tee-shirt pocket.
“The camera never lies,” I told him. I pulled up the photos to show him. He didn’t even allow himself a small smile at the first photo with Fi’s triumphant grin and thumbs-up as she knelt next to her fish. He had a face like thunder. And at the next photo, which was a close-up of the fish, his face darkened even more. Christ, what was his problem?
“Oh shit. Oh no. Oh shit. I recognise this bloody fish. It’s from Bellevue. How the hell did it get in my lake?” He glared at us. Like it was our fault? “And why didn’t you keep it for me to see?
“Julian, I’ve never sacked a fish in my life, and I’ve no intention of starting now,” I told him crossly. “And how the hell did we know it’s not meant to be there.” Jeez, he was way out of line.
“Have you sent these photos to anyone yet?” he demanded.
“No, we haven’t. I …”
“Good,” growled Julian quickly. “Come up to the house, both of you. Now. Bring your cameras. I want to show you something.”
“We’ll be about ten minutes ...” I began. We had a few things to do first.
But he’d already turned round and was striding furiously up the track towards his house. What the hell was going on?
“Why is Julian in such a tizz about the fish?” Fi asked, looking worried. “Have I done something wrong, Marcus? I was really careful with him. You know, you were there.”
All I could do was shrug. “I don’t know what’s going on, Fi,” I admitted. “But I know it’s nothing either of us has done. He’s out of line to be such a bollocks about it.”
She brought her rods in, and I went down to my swim to do the same. We got out of our wet stuff, then together we walked up to the house in silence. Fi looked anxious and guilty. I was mad at how rude and unreasonable Julian had been.
“Come on in,” called Julian when I knocked on the door.
We went into the lounge where Julian had his computer set up.
“You were out of order, Jules,” I told him sharply. “There was no need to be so pissy.”
He shrugged and held his hands up. “True. And I’m sorry. Fi, I apologise. Its’ just ... well, you’ll see.” He turned to his computer. “Now. Recognise this guy?” he asked us. A photo of a large common carp filled the screen.
“That’s my fish!” exclaimed Fi. “He’s already been out then?”
“Not out of my lake,” explained Julian grimly. “Out of Bellevue, like I said. But now it’s here.”
“It can’t be the same fish, then,” I summarised sensibly.
“I think it is,” Julian contradicted me. “The weight’s right. It was 60 lbs when it came out of Bellevue six weeks ago, according to their website. And it’s 61 lbs now. That fits. And look at the tail. It’s got a distinctive long split near the top, and then that ragged bottom tip. I only got a quick look at your photo, Marcus, but the tail looked the same.”
I looked at Fi. Her fish had a tatty tail.
I handed Julian my camera. “Upload my photos then. We’ll have a proper look when they’re full screen size.”
“But couldn’t two fish have similarly damaged tails?” suggested Fi, reasonably enough.
“Yes, in theory, but that fish isn’t mine,” Julian reminded her. “It has to be this one. There are too many similarities. I never put that it in my lake. I don’t know how the fuck it’s got there, either, but there’s going to be hell to pay.” He looked furious again.
“What do you mean?” asked Fi, looking very worried. “I didn’t mean to cause you any trouble!”
“I know. I know. I’m sorry, Fi, again,” apologised Julian, realising he was being a bit fierce once more. “I’m not cross with you and none of this is your fault. I’m just a crabby old git. Thank God it was you who got the fish, and I can rely on you not to let anyone know you did until I’ve sorted this mess out. God, if one of the paying clients had caught it in the last few weeks, and pasted the photo up everywhere … shit.”
“I know I’m thick,” sighed Fi, “but I don’t really get what’s going on.”
“You’re not thick. It’s kind of complicated.” Julian sighed. “Do you two want coffee?”
“Please,” said Fi, and I nodded.
“Right, give me five minutes to make it and then I’ll fill you in on what’s been going on round here lately.”
He strode to the kitchen. Fi still looked concerned, so I reached out and gave her hand a squeeze. I started to release my grip, but she tightened hers. So I kept holding. It felt nice. Fi caught my eye, and we smiled at each other. We only dropped hands to take the cups of coffee Julian fetched in for us.
“Are you sitting comfortably?” Julian half-smiled grimly. “Then I’ll begin.” We sat down on the sofa.
“Almost exactly a year ago the same thing happened to Des Hendon-Brown. He had Malval Lake. Did you ever bump into him, Marcus, or come across him on forums? He was a great one for these online chat things.”
I shook my head. “No, I don’t recognise the name.” And I’d have remembered it. You didn’t tend to get many double-barrelled surnames on carping forums. They cropped up more where salmon were involved.
“Well, Des’s lake was about fifty kilometres from here, just outside L’Oiseau. He only got going spring last year. He poured loads of money into it and got some excellent fish from a supplier right down in the South. Paid a fortune for them, daft bugger, but he reckoned they were worth it. I recommended my suppliers to him, but he went for this other crowd. Anyway. He did loads of advertising and by late last summer he was picking up lots of business. He was literally booked solid from August to the end of October. Then in the first week of October or thereabouts, a client pulls out a one-eyed mirror, 44 lbs, lake record to date, so Des puts the photo up on his website. Next day he’s getting abuse by email and on half a dozen forums from some guy claiming that’s his fish. Des denied it, of course, but this bloke was adamant that it was his fish. It all got very nasty. That guy was slagging Des off all over the Net till this January. Des had to threaten to sue for libel in the end, before the other chap backed off with a vague apology, but Des was really pissed off. It had really got to him. And then his first clients this year were a couple of parties of dickhead anglers who were whiney cretins, which I think was the final straw. Des said the hell with it. I told him to hang in there. We all get our share of morons after all, it’s part of the territory, and this business over the fish would all blow over, but he was in a real state. In April he chucked it in. He put the lake on the market and it was sold within a week. He was a fool really. He sold it to the first bidder at well below its real value because he just wanted out. He’d come here for a quiet life, not this kind of shit he said.”
“I missed all that going on,” I admitted. I was surprised that I had. “I usually keep an eye on the forums.”
“Now, I don’t like the bloke who bought Malval, Des’s lake,” Julian told us. “Frank someone. Damn, what is it? One of those stupid surnames.” That was a bit rich coming from Jules, who was Mr Pratt. “Hodgkiss. That’s it. Frank Hodgkiss. I don’t trust him an inch. I’m sure he’s flogged off all Des’s fish, or plans to. I bet you anything you like he’ll put that lake up for sale this winter. I reckon it’s empty by now. He’ll sell it to some sap from England who knows nothing about anything and won’t check there’s fish in it. And a pound to a penny he’ll do the same thing again and again. And I think I’m the one he’s singled out now. I’ve got some bloody good fish in my lake, and a lot of people know that.”
“But my fish isn’t one of Des’s fish, is it?” Fi was still puzzled. I was barely following Julian myself.
“No. As I say, I think it’s out of Bellevue. Seventy odd k from here. And who owns that? Aidan fucking Hodgkiss, Frank’s brother. Bit of a coincidence, don’t you think? The bastards must be working together to discredit a fishery, buy it up cheap, flog off the fish at a huge profit, sell up and move on. They’re not getting my fishery though.”
Julian turned to his computer. He put the photo of Fi’s fish from my camera up alongside the one he already had. I wasn’t sure how he did it, but he zoned in on the tail on each photo and blew it up. There was no mistaking it. It was the same fish. We sat in silence for a moment.
“But it’s a real gamble, isn’t it?” Fi pointed out, eventually. “Putting a valuable fish in someone else’s lake. How much is it worth?”
“Anything up to three thousand quid, possibly more,” shrugged Julian.
Fi whistled quietly.
“But it might not have been caught for years, though,” she went on. “Or it might have died. It was an expensive risk to shove my common in your lake.”
“Yes, but one worth making, evidently. They knew damn well that when an angler pulled that fish out, he’d send that photo everywhere – Facebook, youtube, forums, websites. And then the outraged ex-owner would start up his claims that I either poached it myself, or bought it on the black market from some smugglers. Mud sticks. I’d lose my reputation. The plan is that I do a Des and sell at a loss, and guess who buys it? This crowd could make a hell of a lot of money, so they’re actually only investing a tiny amount. And they’re prepared to sit tight for as long as it takes since they know they’ll make a killing if the whole thing goes their way.” He sighed. “I was damn lucky it was you who caught it.”
“Can you prove any of your allegations?” I asked. Julian’s was a bit of a wild theory, but it had some plausibility.
“Not really,” shrugged Julian. “I’ve been keeping photos of fish I was pretty sure came out of Des’s lake. Two I’m pretty definite about – a mirror with a very distinctive scale pattern and a Royal with a hernia. And Fi’s fish out of Bellevue. But if Frank puts Malval up for sale, then I’d say I was definitely on the right track with it.”
“Shouldn’t you go to the police or something?” asked Fi. “I mean, about my fish?”
“I don’t know what to do about that fish, I really don’t. As I said, I’ll net the lake in the next couple of weeks and get him out and put into my stock pond. But whether I make an issue of finding him here or just shut up, I don’t know.
“Microchip your fish, Jules,” I advised him. “And as soon as you can. If this crowd really has earmarked you as the next target, then you need to be prepared. If you can categorically identify your fish, that’ll be a help. So if another wandering fish turns up, then you can prove it.”
“I looked into it in the spring. I got in touch with a new chipping company in the UK who offered to come down, train me up and then help me chip all the fish, but it was too expensive. It was an impressive set up – they’ve written all this support software for tracking the growth of your fish – but I didn’t really want all that. I felt it was aimed more at fish farmers, or much larger scale fisheries, more like yours Marcus, rather than a mom-and-pop lake business like mine. Maybe I’d better get back onto them and see if I negotiate something a bit cheaper.”
“Look, I’m going on my fish chipping training course next Tuesday,” I told Julian. “Harvey is running it. I’ve preordered some scanners and two hundred chips from him. I’ll order some for him to deliver to you, if you like. So, if you can sort out someone to net your lake, I’ll nip down for a weekend and chip them for you.”
“Would you really?” Julian looked relieved. “That would be brilliant, Marcus. I’m pretty sure I can get Blanchard’s team to do the sennage for me. They’re excellent. I’ll start to drop the lake level the minute you lot leave. In about three weeks’ time it will have gone down a good metre or so which will make the netting easier.” He smiled at me gratefully. “Will you come too, Fiona?”
“I’d love to,” she replied, looking at me, “but I’m not sure I’ll be able to get the time off work. I’ll see, though.”
Now I smiled at her gratefully. It would be cool if she could come on another jaunt to France with me. And this time without any other blokes. Maybe I’d finally get my break with her.
“I’ll phone Blanchard now,” announced Julian. He was still running on adrenalin. But as he lifted his mobile, he noticed the time. “Damn. It’s midday. They’ll be eating. Gaston never answers during meal times. I’ll have to wait till two. Bloody French and their bloody long meals.” He scowled.
“I knew people poached fish,” remarked Fi, “but I never imagined they did it in reverse!”
“If it makes money, people will do anything,” I shrugged.
Julian was still under his personal black cloud. Fi and I sipped our coffee. I don’t know what she was thinking, but I wondered about slipping out. Julian seemed oblivious to us.
Suddenly he sat up straight. “Marcus, you can get another week’s holiday, can’t you?”
“Well, I really …” I began, but Julian cut me short.
“Adam must owe you about six months’ holiday,” he went on.
That wasn’t far wrong, but he was being rather presumptuous.
“I’ll have to …”
“I need you to put that fish back for me into Bellevue and then check out Malval.”
I looked at him blankly. Fi stared at him completely confused.
“That’s Des’s old place, right? The lake this Aidan … no, Frank person owns?”
Julian nodded. “The one that I reckon is now fishless.”
“To confirm that for me. I can’t do it myself,” explained Julian. “They know me by sight, the Hodgkiss scum. I don’t want to confide in any one else apart from you two. So I need you to do the detective work for me. You’re an expert angler, Marcus – you’d soon tell if there wasn’t much stock left in the lake.”
“I guess,” I shrugged.
“And what’s more, you could pose as an ignorant English wannabe French lake owner with pots of money.” Julian was warming to his theme. “See if his eyes light up when you say that! He’ll try and sell you his place, I bet.”
I pulled a ‘maybe’ face.
“You’ll help me out, won’t you Marcus?” he pleaded. “And you too, Fi?”
“Me?” Fi was surprised. “What help would I be?”
“You’d keep Marcus out of trouble for me.”
The trouble he was getting me into. Kind of hypocritical, I couldn’t help thinking.
“Wow, this is all getting very cloak and dagger,” I observed lightly.
But I was starting to get sucked in too. A bit of private dicking would be cool. Especially if Fi could come, but we wouldn’t know about that until we got back. Mind, it would be getting chilly for camping in late October, this being central France. Unless I had a warm Fi in my sleeping bag, of course.
Our minds reeling, Fi and I left the house and went back down to the lake. I thunked my head with the heel of my hand halfway down the track.
“Damn, I meant to ask Julian if I could use his computer to look up about that angler who drowned and find out who he was and what happened to him.”
“I kind of think Julian isn’t in a computer-sharing mood at the moment,” Fi observed.
“You’re right,” I shrugged. “I’d like to find out though.”
There was a hoot behind us. The others had got back from Coussac with the shopping and were bouncing down the track behind us. We stepped nimbly to one side.
“Did we miss anything?” asked Rob, rolling down his window.
“Josh got a 26 lber, and Fi got a 41 lber.” We’d decided we’d better round it down.
“Nice, babe,” nodded Liam approvingly. “Got any photos?”
“Nah. My phone had gone flat and Marcus couldn’t find his camera,” Fi fibbed.
“Hmm. An unsubstantiated catch then,” teased Nat.
“Julian knows we got it,” I told him. “We’ve just been talking to him about it.” Partially true, at least.
“We’ll let you have it then,” said Rob graciously.
He carried on down the track. Fi and I dawdled along behind, a lot on our minds.
Rob cooked brunch for everyone – burgers, sausages and gammon slices. Washed down with lots of strong coffee, I felt revitalised. I threw myself into fishing for the rest of the day. I was team leader so I should be setting the pace. Rob’s team were at 642 lbs and we were at 540 lbs. I spodded like a maniac for an hour and then set my pod up with three rods, all baited with some of Norm’s magic halibut boilies, for a change. They seemed to be producing the goods at the moment.
It was a good day’s fishing. Rob’s team kept landing them, especially Rob as usual, although Josh got a fabulous 54 lber. But we did well too. Greg and Fi were soon on a roll. They landed fourteen mirrors between them, all in the 20s, so that was a huge boost. I got a 10 lb grass carp and a nice 47 lb Royal. Andy and Derek pulled in 23 lbs of perch before they got some decent carp, but every pound counted.
So we were feeling pretty chirpy come teatime. Only 50 lbs behind now, and the way we were starting to catch, well, it was looking good for pulling even.