What happens if you discover the perfect lake, one that contains fish that have never been caught but could easily break the record? What if the current carp record holder leads you to them, and helps you connect with a fish that's so wildly amazing that it has to be kept secret for 25 years? This is what happened to me in the early 1990s. Here are the entries from my angling diary, written at Jade Lake while fishing with Chris Yates, and made public for the first time.
Part I: Into the Unknown
All lakes have secrets. Some are subtle and some are ridiculous; some are never known. Large lakes such as Jade can hold onto their mysteries forever. Other lakes have a mischievous streak and occasionally hint at their secrets, but their fickle mood ensures they are never fully explained.
Anglers love unlocking a lake’s secrets. It is a desire bred out of continual taunting by the lake, a playground chant of ‘I know something that you don’t know’. Because of this, carp lakes can become mesmerising.
What of the secrets themselves? Do they even know of their clandestine nature? And what might these secrets be?
In the watery world of ancient lakes, the greatest mystery, the forbidden secret, is often the presence of a gigantic fish. A fish so abnormally large, old and cunning that it is beyond belief. Even if its presence is nothing more than a rumour, the concept of greatness is enough to give birth to the myth, that there is an emperor amongst the legions of lesser carp.
Some say that sufficient probing will reveal all but the most shielded secret. People, they intimate, are weak and can be broken. Lakes, however, are different. You have to earn their trust through faithful and frequent worship. But this requires a conscious pursuit, a willingness to probe, and a desire to know the secret in the first place. Not all of us have the inclination, or motivation, to unlock such secrets. For some, the presence of a myth is better than a myth made real; a quest into the unknown is more dramatic than following a well-trodden path.
A lake should always have secrets.
Part II: A Call in the Night
My dreams of monster carp were swimming strongly when, from the darkness of my cottage, came a harsh and abrupt sound. It was the phone ringing. I rose and checked the clock in the hall. It was 11.30pm. I answered the telephone and was greeted by an excited voice.
‘Are you sitting down? Tell me you are sitting down, you must be sitting down!’ The voice barely paused for breath.
‘Yes, I’m sitting down. In fact, I was in bed. I was lying down. Horizontal. Unable to fall over.’
‘Good, then I must tell you of the vision. The double vision!’ The voice stressed the word ‘double’ as if one vision was no longer adequate.
‘Okay, enlighten me.’
‘Demus and I were exploring at Jade Lake this afternoon, working our way up the east bank, beyond the grotto. We had shuffled along on hands and knees beneath an enormous laurel bush. In the middle of it we found an opening that led right down to the water’s edge. The water wasn’t deep there; we could see the clean gravel on the bottom, where all around was silty. Fish were close by, we could feel it. The swim was framed by large snags either side – mature beech trees that that had fallen parallel to each other into the water. We knew we were looking at a classic carp swim, one never-before fished. It was our discovery, somewhere worth investigating with rod and line.’
The voice continued, ‘We just knelt there, behind a fringe of rushes that lined the water’s edge, looking out into the water. Observing, hoping. Demus saw the first fish, a dark shadowy shape gliding in from left to right. But the light wasn’t quite right; the glare of the sun was preventing us from seeing the fish fully.
We shifted our weight onto our feet and ever so slowly rose up from behind the rushes so that we could gaze down into the water. There, not ten feet from where we stood, was a huge fish. An astounding fish. A fully scaled carp, slate grey-and-bronze in colour, with palm-sized pectoral fins that wafted the gravels for signs of food. It was in only four feet of water and yet the surface did not shift or bulge. The carp poised for a moment and we were able to assess its total size. It was immense, easily bigger than anything I’ve caught before. A king of kings, presented for Demus and I to marvel at.’
‘That’s amazing, astounding. So why aren’t you there fishing for it?’
‘Wait, I’ve not finished. When you hear what I have to say you’ll understand why I’m not fishing and have, instead, returned home for a strong drink.’
‘Sorry, please continue.’
‘Demus and I stood there in disbelief, marvelling at this wondrous creature, when the unexpected and unbelievable happened. Another carp of equal size to the first appeared from the snag to our left and swam alongside its twin. The revelation, that there were two monsters in this lake, both of stupendous record breaking proportions, both capable of changing someone’s world forever, was unfathomable.'
The voice continued, 'We could barely comprehend the implications of this vision – this double vision – that we'd stumbled upon. Such great size, such intoxicating presence, such torment. We were frozen, unable to speak, unable to think of anything other than these two great fish. And then, as quickly as they arrived, they departed, leaving nothing more than a stunned silence and an image that will haunt our dreams. We had to come home. It was too much, too great an image to comprehend.’
‘So that’s why you rang me, to share the burden?’
‘No, to tell you that you and I are going fishing there tomorrow. No questions. Just bring your strongest tackle.’
The phone went dead and I was left alone with my thoughts, recounting what I’d just learnt. Were these stories true? Were they just a late night prank or a figment of an active imagination?
I’d heard plenty of stories before, in fact every carp lake I’d ever fished had its resident monster myth, a freakish story designed to keep carp anglers from their beds on nights such as this. But this story had credibility.
The voice was that of Chris Yates, the friend who had introduced me to the lake. He was a Jade lake regular and was, more importantly, the carp record holder. He was more than qualified to assess the size of a large carp. ‘Bigger than anything I’ve caught before.’ His words continued to ring in my head. Could these fish really be bigger than his record? Bigger than a fifty-pounder? Not one fish but two. The biggest brace of fish in the land. Two fish witnessed by two very experienced anglers. An image each; a vision to share; a dual message. A double vision.
Yes, they were real. The sighting had proved the legend: tales of mighty fish living in the deeps, rod-wrenching leviathans that could pull a man to his feet. But they had never been seen.
Never, that was, until now.
Part III: Rising to the Challenge
Being a pursuer of wild carp, my ‘strongest tackle’ was exactly the same as for all my other fishing. I had never felt the urge, nor had the opportunity, to fish for such immense creatures, so my tackle was always adequate. I no longer had this luxury. I stared at my old bamboo rod. It was nine feet long and had a permanent bend in it that would double over when battling anything over eight pounds. What if it actually hooked one of these record beasts? The rod would splinter like a toothpick. Who was I kidding? My muscles were willing but my tackle was feeble. I didn’t even have a proper net, only a circular thing that I’d once used for barbel fishing. The only item that gave me confidence was my old Swallow centrepin, currently holding six-pound line but which would, if loaded with enough line, be capable of subduing the largest of fish.
I abandoned all thoughts of sleep and instead threw my clothes on top of my pyjamas and headed to the garden shed to prepare my fishing tackle.
I loaded my reel with 15lb line (the strongest I had), threaded the line through the rings of my rod and tested it by pulling against a sack of potatoes. I stuffed two pillows into my net to test it for size. My confidence lifted. I felt like a proper specimen hunter.
I cared not that my previous best was a twenty pounder from Redmire – a marvellous fish but only a third the size of those monsters – but I had reliable intelligence, and an experienced guide, on my side. Just knowing of the fish was enough to bring me closer to actually catching them.
My plan was simple: hook first and panic later.
Part IV: The Adventure Begins
It was 3am before I had loaded all my gear onto my bicycle, 5am before I had cycled to the local train station and 6am before I boarded the commuter service towards London. My fellow passengers didn't approve of my bicycle cluttering up the aisle, nor the smell of my net, which reeked of a kipper’s socks on washday. I kept my head low and thought of the fishing that lay ahead.
Two changes and three hours later, I arrived at the village station near to the lake. I said my farewells to the stuffy pinstripes aboard the cabin and alighted the train, cycling along the platform into the welcoming silence of deepest Wiltshire.
Jade looked magnificent upon my arrival. I cycled down the gravel track towards the dam to see an explosion of green in the woods, complemented by the milky turquoise waters. The sun was high and a gentle breeze was pushing towards the dam.
I stood and looked up the lake. Where are you? Somewhere, out there, were two gigantic fish, going about their lives as they had always done, virtually oblivious to the gentle angling forays made for them and their kind. I breathed deeply, smelling and tasting the heady balsam scents in the summer air. Monster fish or not, it was good to be back. This was my favourite place in the world.
It would be evening, no doubt, before Chris arrived. So I had all afternoon to explore the lake and try to find its hidden swims. I would venture along the eastern bank and hopefully locate the laurel thicket that concealed the secret swim.
I left my tackle beneath an enormous oak that dominated the south-eastern corner of the dam. I passed through a rickety wooden gate and entered the lost wood. This was the most overgrown, jungle-like part of the lake. Nettles stood shoulder high, hazel and hogweed towered even higher, obscuring my view. At first glance it seemed impenetrable, but I soon found the tracks of other anglers who had burrowed through the undergrowth, creating a maze of tunnels. I scurried along, stooping to avoid the nettles and crawling beneath the boughs of fallen trees.
The tunnels led to an opening near to a large Holm Oak. This was the entrance to the grotto – an icy cave that dripped water from its fanglike stalactites – which marked the entrance to the most secret part of the lake. I descended into the darkness, feeling my way along the rocky walls, breathing the dank air and hoping that I wouldn’t disturb any sleeping bats. Stone steps led downwards, then levelled by the water’s edge. I caught a glimpse of the pool through trailing ivies before the tunnel returned to darkness and rose, quite abruptly through the damp earth, emerging as a foxhole amongst the roots of a vast yew tree.
The woodland before me was remarkably open. It was dark yet alluring, punctuated by rows of lofty pine trees, their trunks devoid of branches but supporting a canopy of evergreen needles sixty feet up. I had heard of this area. It was known as The Cathedral due to its vast, echoing presence.
The ground ahead was steep and rocky, but there was a noticeable path winding its way up the slope. I headed forward, climbing the scree that I hoped would lead to the laurels. As I reached the summit I saw what I was looking for: a solid thicket of laurel that, I guessed, sprawled right down to the lake’s edge.
I circuited the laurels, looking for a way in, but there was no obvious entrance. I tried pushing the branches aside and forcing my way through, but they grew too densely. It was an impossible task, an impenetrable barricade.
Part V: A Leap of Faith
‘I saw your bike,’ said Chris, arriving behind me. He had the look of disconcertion of a rag and bone man having second thoughts about taking it as scrap metal. ‘I knew you were here somewhere.’
‘Yes, erm, I left it by the dam,’ said I, trying to look inconspicuous.
‘You found the laurel thicket then?’
‘I think so.’
‘Think so? You know so. Bet you couldn’t find a way in though.’
‘That’s what it wants you to think. It’s doesn’t like strangers snooping around.’
'I do look pretty strange.’
‘Nonsense. You’re one of us. Now Mrs Laurel, behave. We are of honest intent, and require access.’
Chris then grasped a horizontal branch that grew alongside the laurels, swung his feet forward and lay down flat, sinking slowly into deep leaf litter. With his toes pointing forward he lifted his weight and gently eased himself under the branches, sliding quickly out of sight like a swimmer heading down a water flume.
I followed Chris’ lead, sliding beneath the laurel branches and into the depths of the shrub.
Inside, the laurel was a tangled mass of branches that intertwined and locked together like a bird’s nest. They blurred as I slid rapidly past. I could see Chris, twenty feet below, grasping at branches to slow his inevitable fall towards the water.
Part VI: Casting at Shadows
Chris and I landed safely at the base of the laurels. Composing ourselves after our fall, we caught our breath while surveying the scene before us.
The swim was like a natural harbour: laurel bushes overhanging the water on either side, resting their branches upon the drowned limbs of sunken beech trees. The whole area was no more than eight feet wide and fifteen feet long, with deep open water beyond it. Seeing such stupendous fish at such close range, and in such intimate confines, must have made them look impossibly big.
The swim looked barely large enough for a monster carp to turn around in, let alone live in. And yet we were planning to do battle here with these formidable creatures.
We decided to wait until nightfall before we fished, so we climbed back up the bank to fetch our tackle and to explore other likely spots around the lake.
Returning to the laurel swim by candlelight was a slow and precarious task, but Chris and I were soon settled beside the water. We opted to use just one rod, that I would fish with while Chris acted as ghillie. Chris also had a secret bait that he’d been trickling into this spot each night, that the fish appeared to like.
Chris and I waited for thirty minutes. We sat silently and without motion; speaking in hushed voices to allow the atmosphere to grow. We imagined the carp swimming up from the deeper water adjacent to nearby snags and looking for their supper.
In the blackened water before us, the fish would be searching, exploring, seeking out each morsel that Chris was about to provide for them.
With his left arm extended, he placed the secret bait – salted chickpeas – one at a time onto his open palm before flicking them into the water, six feet away.
There were now five free offerings in the water before us, awaiting a hookbait to join them.
‘It is time,’ said Chris, as he handed me a chickpea for the hook. I pushed it down onto the point and, with no other weight on the line, gently swung the bait out into the night. With my rod rested in a forked stick, I wound a cylinder of silver foil around the line next to the reel and sat back to await the action.
Within seconds, the silver foil shot up and rattled against the rod. I struck, but felt no resistance.
‘Too soon,’ whispered Chris, as he handed me another chickpea.
I cast again and settled down, my heart pounding my ribcage and making me feel like the fish would sense its beat at such close quarters.
‘At least we know they’re here,’ remarked Chris.
He was right and, what’s more, we could detect the subtlest of movements in the water, faint swirls and ripples bulging and breaking against the muddy bank.
The silver foil twitched, making a short, sharp, 'psst' like a snake about to tell us a secret. Chris and I froze. The line twitched again.
‘Steady,’ said Chris, ‘remember last time.’
I kept my hands away from the rod and awaited further signs of life.
The silver foil, which had been hanging in a loose cradle of line, gently and gradually lifted towards the rod. I reached for the rod and, with my other hand, held the line for further indications. There was a dull pulsing on the end, as if an invisible hand were stroking the line.
‘I think there’s a…’
I jerked the rod upwards and to my right. The lined thumped and the water erupted at our feet. The rod bent double and line stripped from my reel in an unstoppable blur. It was as much as I could do to prevent the rod being pulled from my grasp.
The fish bolted from the margins, ignoring the safety of the snags and instead heading for open water, far out into the lake. My reel continued to spin furiously, its ratchet sounding like a heron practicing for the lead role in Figaro.
I had never felt such terrifying, absolute and unstoppable power.
The fish ran deep and steadily, pounding on the line with each kick of its tail. It was so different to the lightning dash of a wild carp, slower yet so...relentless.
‘How much line do you have on that reel?’ shouted Chris, as the never-ceasing ratchet droned into the night.
‘About a hundred yards.’
‘Then you’d better clamp down now else that fish will de-spool you.’
I adjusted my footing to gain a better balance and then grabbed the reel, feeling the rod thump down hard. I heaved against the surging fish. The fish’s power was softened by the bungee effect of ninety yards of line, yet I couldn’t gain much control over it.
The fish continued to pound the rod, the line following it through the darkness as it swam from left to right and back again.
‘It’s tiring,’ said Chris, as he searched for the net, ‘but that’s a really good fish, so be careful as you draw it back.’
With both hands on the rod, I eased the fish back, a yard at a time, pumping and reeling as I went. The fish continued to kick, but with less power than before. Slowly, ever so slowly, the stretchy sensation in the line began to ease and I knew the fish was drawing close to the bank. The water in front of us swirled and boiled, sounding like a water butt toppling over in a storm.
‘Easy, easy!’ Chris’ words were well timed; the fish lunged, making one last attempt for freedom. It was too late. Chris scooped with the net, the water erupted before us, sending spray in all directions.
‘We’ve got it!’
Gasping for air and with my heart pounding, I knelt down beside the net, which Chris had hoisted ashore. With hands shaking, I fumbled at the mesh and felt the smooth, cool body of an immense carp.
‘Wait! Just a moment,’ said Chris, ‘whilst I light the candle; we need to see this fish.’
I heard Chris fumbling in his pockets, then a familiar rattling before a grating and a blinding spark that illuminated the laurels above us. The soft amber glow of the match was less intrusive, as was the luminosity of the candle that radiated around us and highlighted the fish.
‘It can’t be.’
‘I don’t believe it.’
But it was true.
This was an enormously large fish. A splendid carp. Stout and brutish and with a disproportionately large tail. Its bronzed scales revealed the scars of previous encounters, and its mouth gasped, opening and closing as it tried to make sense of its predicament.
'First time on the bank,' said Chris.
‘It would be rude to weight it, though,’ said I, 'its presence has the makings of a legend.’
But we did weigh it. And we did stare. And we barely believed.
‘It was a noble warrior,’ replied Chris. 'A king of the lake. And a capture to keep secret, for a very long time.'
We then lifted the carp from the net and carried it to its natural environment. We said farewell, and slid it back into the cool waters.
Suddenly the pursuit of monsters seemed very, very, real.
This is a sample chapter from Wild Carp, Fennel's Journal No. 4
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