Country diary: A gleaming catch causes much excitement

<span>‘What I saw is now more generally known as a needlefish, likely <em>Belone belone, </em>a marine predator that preys on other fish.’</span><span>Photograph: Lance Sagar/Alamy</span>
‘What I saw is now more generally known as a needlefish, likely Belone belone, a marine predator that preys on other fish.’Photograph: Lance Sagar/Alamy

I’m birdwatching at the edge of a reedbed, under a heavy sky that’s silvered by the falling sun, when a sudden outburst distracts me from my binoculars. I turn around to see a man gesticulating on top of the sea wall behind me. His fishing rod dangles a gleaming catch. I’m mildly surprised at his excitement. Most of the anglers I’ve encountered have been the silent type. Then there’s movement below him, and a child’s head bobs above the wall, her long hair whipping in the wind.

The man shouts: “It’s a gar!” – not a name I’m familiar with.

I call up to him: “Can I get a look?”

“Of course.”

I climb the grassy ramp of the wall’s landward side. The young man grabs the line to hoist the slender fish, revealing its full length to be close to half that of the rod. Its head extends into a narrow beak full of teeth. “Wow,” I say, “that’s like something out of the Jurassic.” The little girl – she’s no more than five or six – glowers at me. I try to win her over. “Your daddy has caught a really special fish.” Her father jumps in. Apparently – Maisie? Daisy? the wind tears her name from his mouth – was the one who landed it. The child flashes him her grave stare. He buckles. “Well, no, actually, it was me.” Then he mutters that the gar has been too long out of the water. He bends down to unhook it from the line.

Afterwards, an online search tells me that “gar” refers to a largely freshwater group of North American fish. I read on, puzzled. Ah. That was European settlers reaching for an old name and giving it to a different species, as happened with “robin” (the American robin is a thrush). What I saw is now more generally known as a needlefish, likely Belone belone, a marine predator that preys on other fish. I think of that muscular shaft of a body: “needle” is too delicate a term. “Gar” means spear in Old English – a much better name. I’m glad it’s still used in these parts.

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