by Mark Cunnington

Several weeks ago a carp weighing over 70 pounds was taken from The Avenue Fishery in Shropshire: a British record for rod-and-line fishing. Once details of the capture were released, the carp fishing world went into instant meltdown on social media and, shortly afterwards, in a swathe of print articles. Opposing factions spewed out a mixture of, on the one hand, bile and bitterness, and on the other, lethargy and listlessness. Why? Well, it was all to do with the circumstances of the capture. The fish itself had been ‘grown on’ in a stock pond and on reaching a record-breaking weight had then been released into a fishery where paying anglers had the chance to catch it. Unused to anglers’ rigs, but very used to anglers’ baits upon which it had been previously fed, and with a massive body weight to sustain, it was unsurprisingly caught very quickly. To some, this smacked of the rampant commercialism currently eating away at the very essence of angling. These people saw it as an ‘artificial’ capture, one manufactured with the sole intention of attracting more paying anglers. Others, the minority, were unfazed by the whole affair and merely shrugged, ‘each to their own’; ‘you pays your money and you takes your choice’.

The argument is an ethical one: what exactly constitutes an acceptable manner of satisfying angling’s central purpose – the thrill of catching a whopper! It’s why the carp, capable of growing so big, has taken over as the species to target in the UK and Europe. Fast-growing, hard-fighting and now resident in numbers across a wide range of differing venues, the carp has risen spectacularly from its ‘impossible to catch’ cult status of yesteryear to become the modern go-to species for most anglers.

In the past, the beginning point for either child or adult keen to start coarse fishing would have been the local pond, reservoir or river. Here, equipped with rudimentary tackle, our bygone angler would have flexed a split cane rod and sent float and hook, baited with a small worm or a pinch of bread, a few yards out into the water. Then, having mended the line so that it had no bow in it, he (it was mostly he) would have set about staring at his float with all the intensity of a hawk watching its prey. He would have spent so long looking with such ferocity at the lurid coloured stub of goose quill poking above the water’s surface – in fear of missing the first movement hinting at a bite – that on closing his eyes its image would have still been there. An image seemingly burnt indelibly onto his retina.

Should that piece of goose quill have suddenly submerged and vanished from sight then, with a rapidly elevated pulse rate, he would have struck and with any luck most likely hooked into a small fish, one measuring just a few inches long. With trembling hands, he would have gently unhooked his tiny bar of silver and carefully popped it safely back into its watery home.

Fast forward to the present and there aren’t too many anglers watching floats anymore or, for that matter, particularly interested in catching small fish weighing only a few ounces. Our instant gratification society means most anglers want to step up into the league of big fish captures straightaway. The so-called ‘apprenticeship’ of catching small fish and then, having learnt the ropes and gained years of experience, gradually turning a hand towards specimen fish – big fish, with far more guile, cunning and effort required to catch them – has all but disappeared. From the outset, big fish are what most anglers crave.

If the modern angler’s take on what size of fish he wants to target is different from the past, then his tackle has performed a quantum leap. The amount of tackle technology available to anglers, both new and seasoned, is nothing short of remarkable. Equally, fishing venues have come on leaps and bounds. Where once a twenty pound carp was a rarity, nowadays nearly every venue will be home to one. The modern angler can access the best of everything if his wallet allows it: the best venues, the best tackle, the best bait. And he can readily find information on how to use them all efficiently. It’s a massive short cut to how things used to be and even a novice, if he chooses the right venue to fish, can catch relatively large carp within a short space of time.

Modern techniques and tackle have made a massive difference, but, thankfully, there are a couple of fundamental aspects to angling they can’t influence. The first is the gradual accumulation of knowledge and experience, both general and venue-specific, that affords the angler a mental picture of what is going on underneath the water’s surface. (The apprenticeship may have gone but, as in all walks of life, the learning never stops.) The appreciation of where fish may be feeding in different weather conditions, or how they are influenced by features such as water depth, weed beds, rushes, islands, margins and overhanging trees, are all important factors in helping to put fish on the bank. Combine modern tackle and techniques with good watercraft, as that skill set is known, and even more big fish will come the angler’s way.

The second aspect has nothing to do with catching and is all to do with the angling phrase ‘just being there’. Sitting by a lake on a beautiful summer’s morning, its surface a strobe-lit disco ball of glittering specks of white light, the atmosphere of watery nature is as compelling as it ever was, irrespective of the tackle used. It’s the pleasure all anglers, however many years may be under their belt, can still experience every time they venture out on a trip – productive or not. Going fishing, despite all the paraphernalia of modern technology and the arguments over the relative merits of individual captures, is still as much about the environment and the setting as anything else. It’s this wonderful facet of the UK’s most popular pastime that remains set in stone.

Of course, this is the UK we’re talking about and we anglers have another expression, one that covers the winter days when not only are the fish not biting but where the environment is less than compelling. The days when being outside and next to water is less pleasure than endurance test. On these occasions, in the cold, the wind and the wet, everything gets covered in mud. Fingers cease to function. Feet turn to blocks of unfeeling ice. Everything – you, your tackle and the surrounding world – is saturated and icy to the touch. ‘I’ll be glad when I’ve had enough of this!’ the winter angler will mutter, knowing full well his obsession still burns as brightly.

Where to fish locally.

For anyone interested in freshwater angling and wanting to know where to fish, here are a few good starting points. Our two main local clubs are Clive Vale Angling Club and Hastings, Bexhill and District Freshwater Angling Association. Both offer a good scope of waters in return for a very reasonable yearly membership. If interested in pursuing carp specifically then there are a host of day ticket waters where it’s pay as you go. Wylands, Iden Wood, Hawkhurst Fish Farm, Tanyards and Orchard Place Farm are just a few of the many available. A quick search on the Internet will reveal many more.

For the beginner, I would suggest fishing a ‘runs’ water, a term for one that is well stocked and where bites are easy to come by. Once again, Internet searches will be helpful but never forget the local tackle shop, where word of mouth from other anglers can often be a good source of information as to which venues are fishing well. Should anyone aspire to catch a very big carp then a bit more care is needed to make sure the fish of your dreams is actually swimming in the lake you’re fishing! Many day ticket waters hold huge fish, but it’s perhaps in the many angling syndicates up and down the land where the combination of setting and big fish gel most attractively. Syndicates, however, are another story!

One final point, please remember that before any fishing takes place you must hold a valid rod and line licence. Details are available on the relevant www.gov.uk website.

Mark Cunnington lives in Hastings and is the author of The Syndicate series, a set of of humorous fictional novels centred on the extremes of the UK carp fishing scene. More details at www.carpbooks.com