Angling: Carping on about size

Fishing Lines
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The Independent Online
THIS week the Record Rod-Caught Fish Committee officially approved a 55lb 13oz carp called Mary as the new British record. Nothing unusual in that - the great lump has been caught so many times that Mary and his captors (carp anglers are not always the brightest of people) are on first- name terms. What is extraordinary, however, is that despite spectacular advances in tackle, methods and bait, no carp has yet been caught to better a 58lb fish from Redmire Pool more than 40 years ago.

This tiny lake on the Welsh borders has held the British record for almost half a century. It yielded a 31lb 4oz carp in 1951 and Richard Walker caught a 44-pounder there a year later (this carp could be admired in the London Zoo aquarium until it died in 1973). In 1981, Chris Yates broke the record again with a 51lb 8oz Redmire carp - and Yates believed his was far from the largest fish in the water.

Of course, anglers are notorious for their "it was this big" yarns, executed with manoeuvres more commonly seen in aerobics classes. But others have substantiated Yates's outrageous claim. Bob Jones, a local teacher who fished Redmire for 10 years, once cut sticks of differing lengths and threw them into the water to estimate more accurately the length of fish gliding in the lake's murky depths.

One morning, he and a companion saw an absolute whacker swim alongside a 4ft stick. "The carp was easily that long, perhaps a bit bigger," said Jones, a man not given to wild exaggeration. Walker's record was 37 inches long; Yates's fish 36.5in.

Yates had spotted his record-breaker on several occasions before catching it, and nicknamed it The Bishop. There was a larger one he called The Queen and a truly huge fish he christened The King. Here is his description of the first time he spotted his majesty. "I was standing by a willow when three large carp came round the edge of the trailing branches. As they came closer, they slowly coalesced and merged into one. I couldn't believe it. I had been watching a number of bigger fish previously, all over 20lb, and this thing made them look silly, like a big chub swimming among a shoal of dace. Even if I was the sharpest salesman in history, I'd never persuade you to buy my story. There is a limit to everyone's credibility and this carp was way beyond the limit."

There is even a picture of a truly giant carp, taken in 1958 and sadly impossible to use as a size gauge. The photographer, Eddie Price, saw the fish from a 3ft-wide punt. Its head protruded from one side, its tail the other. How big? Jones, ever cautious, says more than 60lb. Yates, when pressed, told me it could have been 70lb. Price wrote to a friend: "I have a negative of a photo I 'm very proud of - a carp of over 70lb lying in the weeds at Redmire." It sounds outlandish. But Redmire had the pedigree for such a fish.

In 1954, Walker, probably the greatest angler of this century, went fishing at Redmire and caught nothing because the carp were spawning. He noticed a large female carp had been driven into the shallows by three smaller male fish. It was lying on its side and in danger of being stranded. So he waded out, netted it and carried it to the deeper end of the lake to release it. Before he did so, he weighed it. Though distended by spawn, the carp weighed 58lb. It is still the largest carp officially weighed from British water.

Over the past decade, carp anglers have discovered high- protein baits. Not only are these good for catching fish, but the carp bulk up on them faster than a fat boy locked all weekend in the tuck shop. Nowadays, 30-pounders are commonplace and 40lb fish are caught weekly.

Carp are extremely long-lived (Walker's record died aged about 50). This means that if the Redmire monsters weighed 40lb, 50lb or even more in the 1950s, they should now be almost double that weight. But those who fish there nowadays reckon the largest carp is little more than 30lb. Next week, in the final part of the Redmire story, I'll tell you how one man destroyed the country's most famous water, riding roughshod over fish- movement laws (never mind the history of the place), and sold its carp off for a mess of pottage.