CHRIS YATES caught the biggest carp landed in England in 1980. It weighed 51lb (23.1kg). During the long wait before it took the bait he fell asleep. He woke to find himself standing waist-deep in the water attached to the fish, which he duly followed into the lake.
Now he has written one of the few books, The Secret Carp, that can suggest to an outsider what the point of fishing might be.
When a big carp feeds in a shallow pond it looks as if a warthog is running along the bottom. Sometimes it will stop and truffle around, pushing up 20 or 30 square feet of silt and bubbles. But the moment it sees a movement on the bank, this embodiment of burly arrogance, a sort of Denis Healey with fins, can disappear in seconds.
It was not until after the Second World War that people learnt they could catch carp with a rod and line. Richard Walker, whose 44lb (19.6kg) catch stood as a record from 1953 to 1980, made his own rods. Nothing he could buy was strong enough.
Nowadays it is much easier. Carp fishing is a semi-commercial enterprise. The myths grew so huge the fishery owners found they could make money by stocking lakes: the technology grew correspondingly. Fishermen now come to carp lakes in the Home Counties equipped, as if for campaigns in the Falklands, with bivouacs and carbon fibre rods, electric bite alarms, magical oils to attract the fish and specially shaped lead weights to cast the bait a hundred yards or more.
All you need do is to put a boiled potato impregnated with this week's wonder essence on a length of fine line attached to the hook, hurl the lot out a hundred yards, go to sleep and wait for your alarm to sound. Chris Yates despises the modern, expensive way of doing things, not merely because it is greedy, but because it is less efficient.
He fishes with cane rods and when given a set of modern carbon rods, he stuck them in the garden to grow runner beans up. 'I take friends out to see them sometimes. One offered me a hundred pounds for them, but I wouldn't take the money. They are too useful. Only the other day the drains got blocked, and instead of phoning DynaRod we used one of the carbon rods.'
Equally, he uses old-fashioned reels when he can: ungeared, but beautifully machined chunks of aluminium or even walnut wood that, he says are much better for controlling fish than the modern, geared 'fixed spool' reels he started with. 'Centre-pins can't cast so far, but I hooked most of my big carp within 20ft (6.1m) of the bank anyway.'
We drove to a private lake in an ancient English forest. It is impossible to be more precise: he once saw a car follow as he set off on a fishing expedition, and led it through various lanes of southern England until they wound up at a crowded and popular day-ticket water.
As we approached the lake, he pulled out a handful of red and orange, slightly squishy balls the size of humbugs. They were bait, made from semolina boiled with colouring and peach essence. It was important, he said, to offer the carp something fairly new that smelt good. Since the carp has a brain five times that of a salmon you can not expect to fool it very often with the same device. We crouched behind a screen of reeds and waited for the carp we could see feeding to take his ball of semolina.
Chris Yates said the carp would know if we were concentrating on it, and so we talked quietly about a series of films he has been making for the BBC, with the help of Hugh Morris, the wildlife photographer. They will be shown next autumn, and have taken three years to make. Instead of the normal run of fishing videos, these have been shot as if he were a natural predator, from whom the camera should be concealed as much is possible. If these films are even half as good as the books he has written on carp fishing, they should be able to convey the point of fishing even to people who have never understood.
When what seemed like the 10 minutes were over and nothing had so much as nibbled at the semolina, we realised two hours had passed.
The Secret Carp is published by Merlin Unwin in September.
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