Fishing Lines: Carping and the comfort factor

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The Independent Online
THIS week's 40 Minutes programme on BBC 2 highlighted one of angling's truisms - if you want to find an amateur philosopher, look inside a carp fisherman's bivouac.

It must be all that sitting on the bank for weeks on end without catching anything that makes them reflect deeply on the meaning of life. As one of the fishermen said in the programme: 'I continually think about what it's all about. Why are we here? Who are we? What am I? They're things that are really important to me.'

Assailed by those who ponder such deep issues, is it any wonder that carp are no longer the formidable quarry they once were? Large carp were once considered uncatchable. When Richard Walker took a 44-pounder from a small pool on the Welsh borders in 1952, he broke the British record by more than 12lb.

As a small boy, I remember gazing at the fish, nicknamed Clarissa and given to the London Zoo aquarium. How could such a monster possibly be conquered on rod and line? Now more than a dozen carp larger than Walker's fish have been caught in the past three years alone.

Some say modern tackle and high-technology baits spiced with emulsifiers, flavour enhancers, amino acids and essential oils have stolen the magic from carp, and one of carp fishing's most successful proponents, Kevin Clifford, says his greatest regret is revealing that carp could be individually identified, and that the same fish was often being caught time and time again. 'It took away the mystery of carp fishing. People now know the size of every large carp in a water, and the last time it was caught.'

Clifford knows what he's talking about. He has just written A History of Carp Fishing which, as well as dispelling many myths, proves that most of the modern methods were really discovered at least 100 years ago.

It's not known what modern carp would make of this concoction, given in 1681: 'Take Man's Fat and Cat's Fat, of each half an ounce, Mummy finely powdered three drams, Cummin-seed finely powdered one dram, distilled Oyl of Annise and Spike, of each six drops, Civet two grains, and Camphor four grain.' Some of the ingredients may now be elusive, but the lesson is there. Strong smells are a key factor of today's baits.

Clifford's book is an admirable example of research, particularly as his background as a research assistant in a chemical laboratory and running a newsagent's scarcely equipped him for discovering how a half-Dutch inventor had a huge impact on carp fishing at the turn of the century, or how giant carp got into a lake on a 1,000-year-old estate near Nottingham.

It's a fascinating record of how and why carp fishing has changed. Not so long ago, it was all about going to a secluded pool and pitting your wits against a wild creature in beautiful surroundings. Now it's televisions, barbecues and carpeted tents on the bankside. Clifford says: 'I think the attitudes to carp fishing today reflect society as a whole.' Which is where we came in.

A History of Carp Fishing by Kevin Clifford, pounds 19.95, Sandholme Publishing, telephone 0430 440624.