I used to fish as a boy, mostly bobbing a little bubble float down one of the local streams to catch trout and gudgeon. One summer, however, a school-friend secured access to a private woodland lake, well-stocked but rarely fished and it was there that I caught my first tench. Even though I have not been fishing for years, I can still remember the cool muscular body, enveloped in mucus and the characteristic smell that lingered on hands and clothes long after the fish had been released back into the dark, reflective waters.
Although I cannot remember the weight of those tench that I caught that summer – for me, the fishing was never about catching the biggest fish – they were a fair size and felt solid in the hand, even though they lacked the raw muscular power of a game fish. Their docile nature, they pulled on the line but never really fought, fitted with the heavy air and quiet surroundings of that shaded pool and it is perhaps unsurprising that I always associate the tench with that particular place. Their soft, olive-brown colour also seemed in keeping with the woodland surroundings.
The tench is a fish of slow-flowing rivers and stagnant pools with muddy bottoms, where it can tolerate low oxygen conditions. It can even survive out of water for several hours, provided it is wrapped in something moist. Here in Britain it is regarded as a sporting fish, though less popular than carp – presumably because it does not grow as big. Elsewhere in Europe, however, it is caught for the table and cooked in a similar manner to carp. The flesh is dark and reputed to have a strong flavour not suited to all palates and perhaps derived from its bottom-living lifestyle. The Romans, for example, saw it as a dish for the ‘common people’ preferring other delicacies for their own higher tables.
The mucus is said by some to have healing properties, hence the name of ‘doctor fish’ that is sometimes given to the tench. The mucus and the small, deep-set scales - which were ground into powder - were used by physicians for the treatment of various ailments over several centuries. I can’t say that I ever put the mucus to the test, though I do remember that it caused consternation to my mother, who had to wash my ‘fishy’ clothes after a long day’s fishing.
Those school holidays are long ago now and I do sometimes think that it would be nice to see a tench close up again, to sniff that smell that would transport me back to those lazy summer days and the wiping of mucus-covered hands on to once clean trousers.