Mark makes a welcome return to Carpworld, in a new regular quarterly feature. This month he brings readers up to speed on events over the past year or so
L“Let’s go skiing!” they said. “It’ll be fun!” they said. The French Alps were beautiful but it turned out that trying to keep up with three teenagers who were intent on kicking up as much powder as possible was a bad idea. Every cloud though: a few weeks on crutches while my knee ligament is repaired means that I can’t pull the Ashmead weed or pollard the willows I planned to deal with this month, so I have had the time to sit down and do some writing for the first time in nearly a year. That’s the ‘glass half full’ perspective but the ‘glass half empty’ view on life is that I probably won’t get out with the rods this spring as much as I planned either, as my leg isn’t going to be up to the walking involved.
I have hardly fished all year because life has been so busy. When we left the corporate world and took a leap of faith, opening Ashmead up for anglers to enjoy, Shona and I expected rather naively to have lots of time for the things we love doing together. We thought we would be out hill walking with the dogs, working on our smallholding, writing, taking wildlife photographs and (in my case) fishing. That freedom always seems to be just out of reach and the reality is that we are busier than we have ever been and time is a scarce and valuable commodity.
Please don’t get me wrong; we are incredibly lucky to make our living from caring for the Ashmead wetland and we get a huge amount of pleasure from sharing the fishery with like-minded anglers who value the rich, natural environment and challenging carp fishing that Ashmead offers. Fishery management and conservation have always been a labour of love, it’s just that we thought that life might be a little less hectic.
Although I haven’t fished often in the past year, I have probably valued and enjoyed each trip to the waterside with a rod more as a result. Sitting here now with the wood-burner fired up to counter the cold of a dreary day, it’s lovely to look back on the photographs of my few carp fishing trips.
I always like to see out the old coarse fishing season on 15th March with a visit to the lake. Last year I set up in the Hut Bay where I had seen some fish and then went for a walk at last light to check the otter fence. In No Carp Corner, at the other end of the wetland, I found a group of feeding carp that included a mirror I’m pretty sure was the Big Linear, uncaught for nearly six years. There and then I decided to move. It’s a long old slog round to the Corner at the best of times but moving in the dark through the thick wet clay, I thought I must have been mad. Just as I finally reached the swim, a shooting star flashed across the sky – always a good omen!
All three baits landed sweetly and with hardly any disturbance and I sat back full of confidence. It’s always a relief when the fish carry on feeding and moving after I’ve placed a rig, as it shows I haven’t spooked them. So often the activity dies and the fish drift away, alerted to my presence by a clumsy footfall or the disturbance of the rig arriving in the swim.
The night turned wild with a bank of cloud building from the north heralding the arrival of strong winds and driving rain. The take, when it came, was dramatic and I knew straight away that it was a big fish – just that slow ponderous shaking of the head. The fish ploughed into heavy floating weed close in but I ran round the corner to change the angle of attack and the entire weed raft started to come towards me. Eventually the fish kicked free and set off on a long, surging run along the channel. I thought it was going to keep going under Wilson’s Bridge and I clamped down hard, rolling the fish over in the darkness. After that drama she came in easily and I soon had the golden scales of a huge common reflecting the torchlight as she lay in the net – 40lb 4oz... I couldn’t have been happier.
The traditional ‘opening night’ of June 15th still holds a magic that I love and I make an annual pilgrimage to a wonderful carp pool every year, to welcome in the new season. I’ve fished ‘opening night’ here with the same small group of Golden Scale Club friends for the past 35 years. The pool is steeped in history and it lies in a deep valley that holds some of the finest mature oak woodland in the country. It can be a dark and forbidding place to fish and there are innumerable ghost stories that add to the mystery and magic of the place. Chris Yates once described the pool as being “like an evil eye” yet I’ve always found it welcoming, provided I respect its moods and don’t tread too heavily on its banks.
The lake is the most compelling water I’ve ever fished. There was a time, about 20 years ago, when I believed the pool held fish of near record size and fishing there had an intensity I have never experienced on any other water. The large fish are long gone these days, due to old age and the recent ravages of otters – yet, despite this decline, there is still nowhere else I would rather be stalking a
carp. My fishing is very much more relaxed these days as well, not just because the large carp I used to see are no longer found but because of an easy familiarity with the pool, built up over all those years. I suppose it’s like the fierce flame of a new love affair mellowing into a less intense but deeper and more meaningful relationship as time passes.
This year I spent four wonderful days at the water, drinking tea, relaxing in good company, walking in the wild wood and, when the urge took me, fishing. My favourite form of angling is to immerse myself in my surroundings to the extent that I can tune in to the carp and their natural rhythms. When I’m at a lake for a few days, I can develop an almost sixth sense that guides me to the fish. Through careful observation and preparation, I find I can determine where and when the fish are most likely to feed and to target my fishing to those areas of the lake and those times. More than that though, I will be drinking tea, or taking a walk, or in the middle of taking a photograph, when I will suddenly get an irresistible urge to grab a rod and go stalking in a particular part of the water, absurdly confident that I will catch, or at least get a chance at a carp.
I only caught one fish last ‘opening’ but it was a good one. Most of the carp were tracking the movement of the sun as it moved around the pool, feeding on the west bank through the morning and moving steadily clockwise around the margins until they arrived in the south-east corner each evening. Of course, not all of the carp followed this pattern but I knew that by midday, a group of fish would have drifted along the margin into a snaggy bay at the north-east corner of the pool.
I took a rod and crept around to the corner at about ten in the morning, so that I could climb an oak that overhung the lake and wait, perched on a bough just above the water, for the fish to arrive. A light scattering of floating bait was drifting in the scum-line when the first shadows appeared beneath me and my hookbait was poised, just an inch above the calm surface, ready to be lowered at the critical moment when the carp I wanted was in the vicinity.
The carp soon found the free bait and started to feed confidently, but with care. Each morsel was inspected, nudged, swirled at and mouthed before it was taken with a slow, gurgling suck. After an hour I had perhaps as many as 20 carp feeding beneath my branch, ranging in size from a few pounds up to about twenty and, by now, they were competing for the food. There was one carp that was far larger than its companions; I couldn’t see it clearly because it stayed deeper in the water but the dark shape dwarfed the wildies and small commons that made up the rest of the shoal. It took another half hour for this fish to take a bait and it was wary and circumspect. Even when it started to feed more consistently, it only took baits that had drifted right into the heart of a tangle of oak branches and laurel overhanging the margins.
Moving as slowly as a heron, I lifted the rod and flicked the bait over a twig, so that it dangled above the water, right on the edge of the thicket of branches. As the dark shadow rose from the depths, I lowered the bait into the surface film and it was engulfed almost immediately by a pair of dark lips. I stuck and the world exploded in a thrashing spray of water and swamp snot. With the butt of my Sharpes salmon spinning rod wedged into my stomach and my old 300 bursting at the seams, I held on as the carp tried again and again to dive into the snags. Everything held and the carp rolled beneath me before it gave up the ghost and hung vertically at the surface, allowing me to shimmy down from the tree and scoop it up in my net.
She was a long and old-looking mirror, with graceful lines and a light scattering of golden scales on a skin of cast bronze. I slipped her back into the shallows after a few photographs and smiled as she thrust back into deeper water. I didn’t feel the need to cast again.
Even when it started to feed more consistently, it only took baits that had drifted right into the heart of a tangle of oak branches and laurel overhanging the margins
In July, I visited Redmire for three days with some good friends. I’ve agreed to write in Carpworld about the conservation project proposed to restore Redmire from the effects of intensive farming in the catchment above the pool. I’m delighted to say that the project is now funded fully by the owners of the pool and I’ve been asked to manage the extensive works that are needed to bring the pool and its historic stock back into good heart this year.
This visit really drove home the need for the work to be done. The pool is silted badly with coarse, sandy sediment from the farmland run-off and there was almost no weed because a heavy bloom of blanket weed induced by high nutrient levels in the spring had shaded out the rooted vegetation. We saw carp everywhere and several of the smaller fish showed characteristic signs of partial ghost carp lineage. All in all it would have been depressing if it wasn’t for two things: first the knowledge that my plans have been agreed to sort out the problems and, secondly, the fact that even in its current state of decline, the atmosphere of Redmire still holds a unique magic.
I let my companions decide where they wanted to fish and then spent a while creeping around the pool, looking for somewhere away from the popular swims that looked as if it had been neglected. The margin off the reeds in front of the Fence held promise. The swim was overgrown with brambles and I had to fight my way down to the landing stage overlooking the water. I found I could just squeeze two rods into the swim if I slept back from the lake, using the trees for shelter rather than a brolly.
Darren set up near the furthest willow pollard in Bowskill’s, over-looking the shallows to my right, where he had found some fish cruising. I hadn’t even sorted out my first rod when he shouted and by the time I reached his pitch, he had already landed his first Redmire carp – a lovely deep linear mirror. That set the tone for the visit really and I visited Darren’s swim regularly with a camera to photograph fish he had landed. I managed to catch a few as well, landing four carp from seven runs. Darren’s fish all came in the afternoon whereas mine all came after dark or at first light. I have a feeling we were fishing for the same group of fish and that they were moving along our margin towards the shallows when the sun got up, before dropping back into the deeper water in front of me for the night.
I lost the biggest carp I hooked and I can still picture the long, slow bowwave that forged across the surface towards Kefford’s, just after the hook pulled on the final morning
My best two fish were a craggy old mirror of about 18lb and a lovely common of just over 21lb. I lost the biggest carp I hooked and I can still picture the long, slow bow-wave that forged across the surface towards Kefford’s, just after the hook pulled on the final morning.
I loved every minute of the trip and it was great to get away for a few days with close friends. It’s good to know that, provided the project runs smoothly, Redmire will once again look as it did in Walker’s day. The vision for the project work is to restore Redmire so that if Walker, BB or one of the other members of The Carp Catchers Club strolled onto the dam, they would recognise the pool as they fished it and find the same, rich and productive environment they experienced in the pool’s heyday. I can’t wait to see that vision become reality.
I spent the remainder of the summer on the bank with my youngest son Alistair, who has fallen in love with angling. We started out spending the odd evening stalking carp on a local water near home and our trips culminated in a three night stay in the holidays. Ali was determined to fish entirely on his own terms and we settled into swims at opposite ends of the three-acre pool. Of course, like any good dad, I gave Alistair first choice of swim but I was delighted when he chose to fish the shallows because I really fancied a pitch at the deeper end, near the dam.
Needless to say Alistair soon proved himself the better judge and he landed six fish during our stay, including a fabulous linear mirror of over 33lb. We had fished at night together before but this was the first time Ali hadn’t fished alongside me and he did everything himself, from selecting
the bait to tying his rigs, casting and playing the fish. The first I knew of each capture was a rude awakening from a loud shout as he slipped the net under the carp. I was immensely proud and even the prospect of weeks of teenage boasting didn’t detract from the pleasure of sharing the lake with him. As it turned out, the boasting never materialised because, whilst Alistair’s linear was by far the best looking carp of the session, I landed four fish myself including two mirrors of 32lb and 34lb – so the bragging rights were shared.
September brought a lovely surprise. Six close friends of mine were booked to fish Ashmead and Shona had saved the last place for me, so that I could join them and fish the wetland myself. I never fish Ashmead in the summer now that we book the wetland out to anglers, and it was a joy to lose myself amongst the channels and islands for a few days when the sun was up and the carp were active.
I elected to fish the outer channels, partly to give the other anglers plenty of choice and freedom in the main swims but also because the channels are often neglected and somewhere where the carp can move and feed with confidence. The fishing is demanding though because you need to be so quiet, as you are always right on top of any fish. You also have to try and stay a step ahead of the carp and it’s very much a case of catching one fish and then moving on to try and get ahead of them, second-guessing where they will move next. It’s like a game of chess and the sort of fishing I love.
I found a group of fish in a narrow and overgrown channel and at dawn on the first morning I caught a lovely linear from a spot under the huge black poplar on the north bank that couldn’t be reached from any of the popular swims. It was just over 22lb and a carp I’ve admired in photographs and in the water but had never landed before, so I was thrilled. Full of hope, I spent the day working out where the remainder of the shoal had moved and I followed them, settling in as quietly as I could in another narrow channel, about 300 yards away from the first night’s swim. The following morning it was evident that, as stealthy as I had been, the carp had noticed me and moved on again without so much as a line bite to mark their departure.
This set the pattern for the next two nights. Now that the carp knew there was an angler on their trail, they were far too cute to make a second mistake and I spent a frustrating but very enjoyable time chasing ghosts. I should have given up sooner but one of the carp was a common called the Razorback, which I had caught a few years previously at over 39lb and I thought it now looked like a mid-forty.
On the last night though I accepted defeat and set off in search of another pod of carp to target. I found what I was looking for right next to the car park, where a shoal of about ten carp were feeding strongly and moving between the Car Park bay and Tom’s Pond. I knew a spot in Tom’s where a glowing, marginal patch of golden clay marked an obvious feeding area, so I crept around there and lowered a single rod into the deep margin. I didn’t want to set up right over the spot, where I would be silhouetted beautifully against the skyline, so I put the line into a clip on the bank and ran the rod over to the adjacent margin. I cast a second rod into some thick silt in the open water of the bay but the margin spot was the one in which I had confidence.
The take came an hour before dawn in heavy rain. By the time I had roused myself, the fish had already built up a head of steam and I couldn’t prevent it from running strongly through two or three weedbeds before it finally slowed to an immovable sulk, deep in the centre of the bay. I got the boat and as soon as I got over the carp, it kicked free and set off with me in tow, spinning like a top in the light boat and in no control whatsoever. It
I lost the biggest carp I hooked and I can still picture the long, slow bow-wave that forged across the surface towards Kefford’s, just after the hook pulled on the final morning
took nearly fifteen minutes to manoeuvre myself and the carp to a spot where I could beach the boat and play the carp out properly from the bank.
By now I had seen a deep, heavily-scaled mirror two or three times in the torchlight and I was ecstatic when I managed to slip the net under it and heave it up onto dry land. It was a fantastic looking carp that I had caught in the past and I have watched it grow, from a small double in 2009 into the 31lb 10oz beauty I held up for the camera in the early sunshine. The carp was simply beautiful and it epitomised everything that makes Ashmead so special. Here was a young carp, spawned naturally in the wetland, that had grown to reflect the rich and natural productivity of its environment. For me, carp fishing just doesn’t get any better.
So there we are! A round-up of a wonderful year, in which I enjoyed some fantastic fishing that was probably made sweeter by the limited time I had to fish. I’ve really enjoyed this reflection, and I hope to find time to contribute more regularly to Carpworld again, now that running Ashmead has settled into a more gentle rhythm of work. Of course, writing this piece has left me with an irrepressible urge to get the rods out. The spring carp and trout fishing are calling but it’s going to be weeks before I’m mobile enough to follow their invitation. Skiing is best avoided if you ask me!
RIGHT Ashmead has settled into a gentle rhythm
ABOVE ‘Just going about my business, bothering no one’
BELOW I couldn’t have been happier
Golden scales on a skin of cast bronze ABOVE
TOP Redmire is suffering from the effects of intensive farming
RIGHT I could just squeeze two rods into the swim
ABOVE TOP A craggy old mirror
ABOVE BOTTOM A lovely Redmire common
BELOW It was a joy to lose myself amongst the channels and islands
A fabulous linear of 33lb for Alistair, but bragging rights were shared
ABOVE I was thrilled
RIGHT I have watched it grow from a small double
BELOW A deep, heavily scaled mirror