Caught by the River

A Mixed Bag – Opening Day

27th June 2013

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Jon Berry with his first report of the new season:

Wild carp are a totem fish for traditional anglers, a physical and incongruous reminder of angling’s past, but their scarcity is the stuff of legend. When Les and I decided that we wanted to catch one, and to do so on Opening Day, we knew that it would require a long drive into mid-Wales, and a formidable trek when the road ran out. We also knew that we might not catch any – our one previous attempt had been a miserable failure.

The lake itself is one of fishing’s worst-kept secrets – eight acres of clear, weed-choked water, much celebrated on the forums and available to all for a few pounds a day. I won’t name it here and add to its infamy, but those who have heard of it will know it instantly. And I’ll leave a few clues for those who have not.

The carp have been there since the twelfth century, and in all probability were stocked by monks from Abbey-Cwm-Hir. For these austere and taciturn men, the fish were a source of food, not entertainment. And in rare moments not surrendered to prayer, contemplation and service, they too would have walked the bleak mountain path to the water – but without the benefits of Gore-Tex and Kelly Kettles.
The carp, which the monks carried so patiently up the mountain, survived dissolution, hiding in the marginal weed among stunted chub and trout, and they are there to this day. They don’t grow especially big, but wild carp rarely do. The prize for anglers is found in their colours, their missile-form and speed on the run. Hooking a wildie is a reminder that, in nature, strength comes not from size but design.

The day began well. As dawn broke and the car covered the final mile of passable road, we encountered a young hare. It ran alongside us for a hundred yards, all haughty elegance and sinew, peeling off in to a field in a flash of browns and greys in the time it took to realise what was in front of us. I reached for the camera, but the resulting photograph was like every other I have tried to take of my favourite animal – a blur of long grass, and a hole where a hare once was. Les declared it an omen, and a good one at that.

We took the van as far as we could and, tackle shouldered, walked in to the depression at the top of the mountain. The lake was still, and almost weed-free. On our previous visit in October it had been solid with it but, in an unseasonably-cold mid-June, we were faced with clear water. As we sat and brewed up on the southern shore, the wind and rain arrived, and they would stay with us until we walked off the peak at dusk.

My outfit comprised an Ambidex 7 reel and a Chapman’s 500 rod; for those unfamiliar with the former, it is a blue and angular affair, a curious mix of eccentricity and function – Redditch meets Soviet Russia, with a hint of Gerry Anderson. The latter was the Ware company’s attempt at an Avon rod, ten feet of light split-cane with a removable handle and the cheapest rings and ferrules known to man. Both were gifts from the Patron Saint of this parish, Chris Yates – which is what made them rather special.

It was the first time that Les or I had a cast a float in three months. We both keep to the old season, fishing only for trout before June 16th, and we hoped the monks would reward our abstemiousness. But, if they planned to, they were in no rush about it. By lunchtime we could claim only two small chub and a good soaking as our reward.

It didn’t matter, because we knew we were in the right spot. Carp rolled over our baited pitches, clouds of bubbles rose to the surface and, once or twice, the clear water muddied as the wildies foraged. We had waited all winter for this day, and we were willing to wait a few hours more.

The lake is as remote as any I’ve fished, but the angler there is never alone. There are horses on the slopes towards the south, red kites scoping the stubbled grass for prey, and there are sheep. Everywhere, there are sheep.

We did what we could to avoid them, but they were moved to protest our presence all the same. Several times they ran towards us, or bellowed their indignation from afar. Les and I soon learnt that there are two sheep voices. There’s the stuttering, benevolent ‘meh-h-h-h’ with which they talk to one another, but also an aggressive, single-syllable bark, and these were aimed squarely at us. I doubt they had seen an angler in half a year, and they made it clear that we were imposing.

Eventually, after Les and I had enjoyed a suitably frugal lunch, the monks bestowed a little fortune upon us both. A float slid sideways and disappeared, and my response – a little late, slowed by rain and lack of recent practice – brought life to the line. Minutes later I held a wildie up to the camera, the first that Les had ever seen. And silently, I thanked the men of Abbey-Cwm-Hir.

The fish fed throughout the afternoon, and Les was soon admiring one of his own. More followed, and though none weighed more than about three pounds, each was as wild as the land in which we’d found them. They ranged from deep burnished copper to gold, and each had the slim, muscled physique for which the fish are celebrated.

It felt as if they would feed all night but, as the light began to go, we were forced to admit that the rain and wind had beaten us. Les led the way to the van, hunkered against the squall and grinning all the way.

Anglers know that, all too often, Opening Day can be a fishless anti-climax, a token cast that leads to nothing. But not this year – no, this was a classic; the sort of day that happens only when one can summon the luck of benevolent hares, and the ghosts of a long-forgotten order.