Return to the Beginning

Suddenly, the stillness broke. First with a muffled ‘whomph’ from below the surface of the lake and then a split second later with the sweet unmistakable sound of a singing clutch. From my peaceful gaze across the lake I was pulled into a new state of pure readiness. My rod, previously lifeless, was now violently arched with line streaming urgently from the reel. I had been resting, resting my mind on the water but now it was time for action. For from stillness always comes movement eventually. I lunged for the rod and leaned into whatever creature was responsible for this most welcome breaching of the peace.

It was a Carp of course, as yet unseen but certainly not unfelt. Through the conduit of my rod I could sense little subtlety as the fish simply steamed off in a relentless bid for a large bed of lilies off to my right. Clamping down on the spool I applied some serious side strain and with the line singing in the warm September breeze I managed to turn the depth-dwelling antagonist just as it started to plough into the outermost fronds – the water boiled.

Thus dissuaded it now began to charter a new course kiting round toward a gnarly old sunken tree out to my left. A wood pigeon with a somewhat bemused look on its face watched on from a perch that protruded from the end of the submerged canopy and as the fish drew steadily closer he took flight in a clumsy flap of feathers to escape the ensuing drama.

Again but with a little less pressure than before the fish’s plan was arm-achingly foiled just shy of his sanctuary and for a few brief moments there seemed to be a juddering stalemate of sorts. Then everything ground to a halt and time seemed to stand still. Whispers of doubt stole into my mind: Was he snagged? Would the hook hold? Were my knots sound? I took a deep deliberate breath and slowly exhaled. Now more relaxed I changed the angle of pull and applied just a touch more pressure: the fish kicked out a welcome reply.

Slowly but surely I began to gain some line and knew that the tables had just turned in my favour. The fish seemed to sense this too and started to plod about belligerently. Steadily I continued to gain ground guiding him painstakingly into the reed-fringed margins and then eventually into the arms of the waiting net. A mixture of relief and elation washed over me. Just then I heard a noise from behind me and I turned to see a little boy from the farm on the other side of the lake scrambling down rather hurriedly into my swim.

‘What have you caught?!’ he exclaimed, visibly excited. 

‘It’s a Carp’ I replied, ‘come and have a look at him.’ Carefully lifting the net out the water I turned and gently lowered my prize on to the mat. Slowly peeling back the sodden folds of mesh revealed something that I hadn’t seen for a very long time.

‘It’s massive!’ the boy shouted as he looked down wide eyed with wonder, ‘I didn’t know fish grew that big!’ he added.

‘This is just a small one!’ said I and the boy’s eyes grew wider. We both gazed at the beautiful long bar of gold in front of us. It was a splendid Wildie of about 11lbs. A lean, mean, fighting machine and pristine in every way; my first carp in a long time and a most welcome sight indeed. After removing the hook with the utmost care, I gently slipped the carp back into the lake allowing the boy one last good look before the fish disappeared into the depths with an effortless flick of its tail. Finally, I was fishing again and it was good to back!

Like so many of us, I have loved fishing since I was knee high to a grass hopper. Back in the day, well over twenty years ago, I had evolved into a ‘Serious Carp Angler’. Being at University at the time meant I had long holiday periods and as such this allowed me to make frequent extended fishing pilgrimages back to the lakes of my native Essex. To have so much time was a luxury and even though I had hardly any money (I used my student loans to buy fishing gear), a long list of text books to read and essays to write, the lure of big carp was too powerful to ignore. Indeed, it took precedence.

Those were halcyon days and I met some great people on the handful of small syndicates I was fortunate to be a member of. A few of those anglers went on to notch up some great achievements in the fishing world. I managed to do OK too and ended up becoming a field-tester for Nash Tackle for a few years. During this time I learned a valuable lesson about fishing, that being to innovate, not imitate. Like many things in life however, this is much easier said than done.

Back in the day, circa mid-90s, and way before I had a digital camera!

Unfortunately all good things come an end. Just as I was preparing for my finals at University and planning to take on a couple of serious new lakes post-graduation, my Mum died of cancer. I was still quite young at the time and the loss shook me to the core. Subsequently, my desire to go fishing vanished.

One day soon after I was suddenly taken by a desperate urge to find more meaning in life. Rather rashly I sold all of the fancy fishing gear I had so painstakingly acquired over the years. With this money I would fund a trip to China and throw myself wholeheartedly into my martial arts training, another life-long passion of mine.

The rest as they say is history but during all the years that followed that peculiar fishing feeling, that uncanny piscatorial sentiment that had been present for my whole life, never left me completely. Instead it subsided to a quiet whisper and just as the tiniest trickle of a stream given enough time will wear its way through the hardest rock, this whisper steered my course most discretely back to the water without my knowing. I often travelled either to either teach or train and wherever I was in the world I would often have the most vivid, intricately detailed dreams about ancient carp in heavenly lakes; lakes full of depth and mystery. After such dreams I would always awake to feel that some crucial element was missing from my life. The pang in my heart made me hope that some day, some how, I would get back to the water and wet a line.

Things have a funny way of turning out. I was inadvertently led back into fishing a few years back while exploring the lush Sussex countryside a few miles north of the little village where we live. I love walking and prior to setting off on a particular route on a particular day I had noticed on the OS map that I would pass a long, dammed lake of about 5 acres that looked to be immersed in woodland. Seeing this ignited something within me and my skin tingled; a feeling of excitement that I hadn’t felt for years, apart from in the best of my dreams. This peculiar feeling only grew when about half way through said walk I came upon a long rolling field surrounded by ancient, gnarled oaks; the formidable trees stood motionless like stoic guardians of some secret treasure that lay beyond.

Reaching the bottom of the field the view opened out to reveal an overgrown dam wall with a farm track running along it. To my great pleasure I discovered that this was preceded by a long lush estate lake, wooded on either side and resplendent with big sets of lilies and myriad fallen trees, their stray branches poking up out of the water like so many skeletal fingers reaching for the sky.

I was awestruck for here right in front of me was the lake of my dreams. Consumed with a heady intrigue I picked my way along one of the overgrown banks and after just a few minutes of peering about I noticed a small group of carp lazily nosing along some marginal reeds that were overshadowed by a huge bramble bush. They were not monsters but the sight of them clicked something deep inside of me back into place.

I raced home that day and started to make enquiries. It didn’t take long before I had discovered the details for the small club that controlled the water and applied to become a member. Fortunately they had a place left and I signed up for the remainder of the season.

The next hurdle was the significant matter of having absolutely no fishing tackle to speak of. This was rapidly remedied and after a few days of perusing an online second-hand tackle retailer I managed to pick up a pair of half decent rods, some old-school Shimano Baitrunners and all the basic sundries that I would need for some short day-sessions. As for bait I simply sourced some good quality Tiger nuts and hemp seed which in the past had been firm favourites of mine.

This process of tackle reacquisition tickled me immensely. Back in the day I had owned the whole gamut of high-tech, high-spec gear, of which quite naively I was very proud. It was a wonderful juxtaposition to trudge along the lane on that first trip (which I described for you above) with only the essential essentials and barely a brand name in sight. It was very liberating in fact.

I fished that beautiful little lake on a regular basis for a couple of years and it served as the most delightful entry point back into fishing. It turned out that the lake used to be fished by Chris Yates and one which he fondly remembers in his book ‘Casting at the Sun’. I used to relish this when creeping about the water; I was following in the footsteps of one of my favourite anglers.

Hard-fighting, torpedo-like commons…

To my amazement the lake was rarely fished and most of the time I had it to myself, especially since my flexible working life saw me fishing mostly mid-week, a time when most lakes are a little quieter. This luxury allowed me lots of opportunity to experiment with different approaches around the water without disturbing anyone, whether that be ‘spombing’ a bed of particles to the inaccessible far margins (I hadn’t even seen a Spomb before this), stalking fish 2 feet out from the dam wall or wading my bait out to some inconspicuous spot, feeling the lake bed for minute discrepancies with my bare feet.

Over time it dawned on me that I now felt much more relaxed about my fishing than I ever did in the old days. This gave me the freedom of mind to be more experimental and most importantly, the freedom just to sit back, enjoy the angling process and simply let things unfold naturally whilst I immersed myself in nature’s endless bounty. And do you know something? The less I tried, the more I enjoyed myself.

One thing that I noticed was that with all of my martial arts training my angling skills had improved in a number of key ways; latent learning is a powerful thing. With better body mechanics and a much calmer and focused mind I found that my casting was infinitely better than before. Indeed, I found that I now loved casting as if it were some kind of beautiful art form. There’s nothing so satisfying as putting your mind onto some tricky spot and being able to hit it consistently. Sometimes just for fun, I would practise my under-arm casts and spend an hour aiming for different leaves as they floated by cajoled across the surface of the water by the meandering wind.

Huckleberry Finn likes a decent brew

I also noticed that my perception and observational skills were much better; my meditation training allowing me to see the lake and its environs clearly and without wishful bias. In angling (and life) we often see things as we want them to be rather than as they actually are and this can cause us all kinds of problems. By being objective and relaxed I was able to enjoy my fishing in a profound way.

It really doesn’t matter what you read or see in videos, it is from your own direct experience that true learning is formed and so during this period I just enjoyed myself; I revelled in my fishing and had the greatest of times, like some kind of middle-aged Huckleberry Finn with a penchant for carp.

It didn’t take long of course before I progressed to doing overnight sessions. With no brolly, bivvy or bedchair to speak of, I used to sleep hovering over my rods in a hammock strung up between two trees or hunkered down on the bank in my old sleeping bag. I did eventually invest in some bite alarms but it took quite some time however to give up my home-made bobbins that consisted of two very special and perfectly weighted bent twigs.

On one particular night I had tucked myself up in my old Nash sleeping bag (of all my original gear the only item I actually hung on to – it’s still brilliant) just under a large bush to the side of my swim. I was very cosy. Sometime during the night something stirred me and I slowly opened my eyes to find that a small herd of deer had made their way down to the lake for a drink and were poised just beyond arm’s length. Being so close it was a remarkable sight and for a short time I watched them, until that is, I made the smallest of movements which immediately sent them galloping, sure-footed and as silent as shadows, back into the fields beyond.

I ended up catching a plethora of pristine carp from that beautiful lake; hard-fighting, torpedo-like commons up to the low-twenty mark with the odd chunky mirror thrown in for good measure. As the water was well off the beaten track I also enjoyed observing and studying the wonderful wildlife that lived there, something that for me is inseparable from the fishing process.

In life things do not stay the same for long. In fact if you spend a lot of time observing nature after a while you realise that everything constantly changes, including you yourself. And so it came to pass that despite having plenty of fishing fun a new seed of inspiration eventually germinated and took firm hold in my mind. I began to wish for a greater challenge and the prospect of something more substantial in the net. One question hung over me: would it even be possible to find such waters where there were few people, little disturbance and the abundant wildlife to which I had now become accustomed but with the wonderful addition of big old carp? Surely, I wanted to have my cake and eat it too?

Something a bit more substantial…

People say that you have to be careful what you wish for because you just might get it, and this is certainly true. For along with having a wish fulfilled always comes the chattels of counter balance, all those niggling challenges you couldn’t have possibly known in advance that have to converge to make a dream a reality. Therefore little did I know as I wished that wish, that many new angling adventures were just around the corner…