The watery world has a way of perpetuating myths and shrouding lakes in mystery. If Loch Ness can conceal an aqueous monster, then small pools can hide a small fish. However, unlike Nessie, wild carp are real. They live in secret places, away from predation and the intrusions of modern carp varieties. In some instances, they have been undisturbed for centuries. Fishing for them would be like looking out onto a lime-lit stage, preparing to perform Hamlet, knowing that Shakespeare himself is in the audience. Your performance, dress, and the scenery around you, would need to be perfect; else the connection with your audience would be lost. Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t. (Hamlet, Act II, Scene II.)
The concept of the perfect wildie pool is the reason why traditional carp anglers find themselves daydreaming about casting a line for these elusive fish. In our mind’s eye we have crept slowly, rod in hand, to the edge of a mist-swirled pool, to see signs of these golden creatures. Bubbles rise along a nearside margin and the leaves of a water lily twitch as a fish swims past. Your heartbeat quickens. The time is yours. You are in an undisturbed utopian state.
"Hey, Lazy!” The words rip through your dream, shattering the pool into splinters and yanking you back into reality with an undignified thump. An annoyed boss or spouse stands over you, tapping their watch and shaking their head. Your dream is gone. The carp, the anticipation, the tranquillity, are lost. You lower your head and return to the tedium of daily chores.
Eventually, after much dreaming, the dream no longer suffices. You have to physically be there, gazing at the pool and the fish, knowing that you are safe from the indignities of those who simply ‘don’t understand’. You vow that someday you will find the pool of your dreams and fish for this perfect strain of carp.
But where to begin the search? There are so many lakes and ponds to investigate. The proliferation of modern carp is now so widespread that even if we were to identify a historic water then the chance of wildies remaining would be hopelessly slim. But the dream – the vision – burns deep inside us, keeping the hope alive that there must surely be an inaccessible or secret water remaining where wildies have survived. You convince yourself that they exist, awaiting your discovery. You breathe deeply, focus your thoughts, and say out loud, "The quest begins here”.
Remember this moment. It will, I assure you, lead to secret, forgotten waters. Some of which can be fished, while others will always remain out of reach, tormenting and inspiring you to keep hunting. It is a deeply personal journey, where each discovery enhances your appreciation for and relationship with these fish. It adds another layer of excitement to your quest.
My journey started properly this year (1989), but I’ve subconsciously loved the idea of ‘lost’ lakes and adventuring for treasure for years. When I was born, I inherited a library of pre- and post-war angling books. These works proved to be a revelation, describing a slow pace of life that I yearn to live. And when it comes to defining angling technique, they extol a basic approach that rejoices in art over science. It is the simple charm of man against fish that overwhelmed me, none more so than the stories of old carp caught from lost waters. The works of Bernard Venables, Arthur Ransome, BB and H.T. Sheringham describe, in detail and with a sense of reverence, the character and atmosphere of traditional carp fishing.
My favourite teacher at school, Mr Hackney, learnt of my love of fishing and gave me two books: Confessions of a Carp Fisher, by BB, and the recently published Casting at the Sun, by Chris Yates. They were accompanied by a note, saying "You’ve found the key, now unlock the door”. Confessions and Casting became my essential references. [Later, they were joined by The Secret Carp, also by Yates.] Between them, these books conjured up images of dark, brooding pools surrounded by ancient, gnarled trees, some standing, others fallen, some lying decaying in the water’s edge as havens for the mightiest of fish. The crumbling walls of a long-abandoned abbey would be the only remaining sign of habitation; ivies would cascade over the stonework and across the woodland floor, signifying Nature’s victorious advance; and wild carp would haunt the watery depths. The vision was an ever-present beacon, urging me to take up the quest.
The defining moment, when the vision became irrepressible, occurred during an English class at school. I was standing up, reading aloud passages from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, when the words on the page blurred and my language became that of Izaak Walton saying, "And my first direction is, that if you will fish for carp, you must put on a very large measure of patience”. The class looked up, the teacher double-checked her copy of the text; I was instructed to sit down quickly before I caused myself further embarrassment. My dreams had broken through into reality, forcing a sense of destiny upon me. I was truly obsessed with wild carp. I had to go in search of wildies and escape to a forgotten pool.
Being fifteen and in love with an idealised image of carp will – I imagine – lead to a rather unusual adolescence. Creatures with breasts are taking second place to those with fins. Nights out with friends are cancelled and pocket money is reserved for fishing books, bait and tackle. My priorities are established. My mates will say, "Get a life”, but I’ll be off exploring, searching for those out-of-bounds places where the wild carp swim.
I’ve already explored many of the estate lakes, farm ponds and wooded pools close to home. Most contain tench, perch, roach and pike. A small number hold carp but, because of this, are rather too popular with local angling clubs. I’ve dismissed these pools and moved on, hoping to find something wilder, more forgotten and seemingly inaccessible.
I have made it my mission to discover a water that is off the beaten track. Somewhere in the undergrowth of the impossible.
This is a sample chapter from Wild Carp, Fennel's Journal No. 4
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