Having read and reread Drop Me a Line I remember being filled with a tremendous sense of anticipation . I’d stared at the photograph of Maurice playing a 17 pounder from the south bank of the carp lake until I felt I knew every twig, leaf and reed personally. Most of my carp lore had come from this unique book, along with Confessions, and Still Water angling and although I had caught a few small carp to 9lb. from a Sussex pond, I’d not yet experienced that ‘smell of carp’ that Dick had described so evocatively.
The drive through the Lincolnshire Wolds to ‘The Haven’, as we called it, was one that I was to get to know well in the next few years. I remember how my MGA’s VW Derrington copper exhaust boomed on the overrun as I dropped down into the fold in the hills where the haven lay . On this, my first visit, I parked the car halfway up the hill by the carp lake then, realising how badly the bright red of its paintwork clashed with the essential greenness of the scene before me, I backed up almost to the gate and hopped out.
The secretness of the place took my breath away. Every step up the track changed my angle of view and revealed yet more of the secret. The sunlit reed fringed shallows, the majestic chestnuts dipping into the water and the darkness of the woods beyond the dam. And then suddenly I smelt that odour that I now associate with old estate lake carp. The background smell of dankness and long waterlogged wood was there, but subtly different, overlaid with something else that I hadn’t smelt before. Whether it’s due to gases released when big carp forage in the mud as Dick thought, or just an overheated imagination I don’t know, but there in the shallows, the sun glistening on the humped black backs, lay the carp.
I sat down on the wet grass of the slope down to the lake and drank in the scene. The fish were moving lazily, staying close to each other, occasionally dropping a nose into the mud to leave a smoke screen suspended in the water. They looked enormous to my inexperienced eyes. Besides my single 9 pounder I’d caught bream to 5lbs in the Thames and small chub from the river Mole but these were different creatures altogether. There was an overriding atmosphere of agelessness, as if these black glistening fish had been here for ever, undisturbed, living a eternally unchanging life like the gods of old. Dimly in the distance I could hear the regular beat of a water ram ringing hollowly through the woods. Later I found out that this ancient piece of machinery pumped water from the lake up to the farm on the hill above Woldale and had done for nearly half a century.
I must have sat there for an hour or more, reveling in the atmosphere, before a voice behind me said , "Big old boogers aren’t they". I hadn’t heard the stocky man who sat down beside me approach. His white Volkswagen was stuck behind the MGA and he wanted to get past. He introduced himself as John Ellis and told me he was more interested in tench than carp. I showed him my letter of introduction from Dick Walker which he read, told me I was a member and could he have my £8 when it was convenient. I was of course delighted but felt guilty later when I found out there was a waiting list of some 300 prospective members.
He said he had come to meet me because Maurice had been held up and wouldn’t be able to make it. He took me up to the cottage and showed me around the whole estate. The lake near the cottage was even more beautiful than the carp lake and was the home of ‘prodigious tench’ so John told me. He’d personally seen fish of over ten pounds with ‘pectoral fins the size of your hand’.
The cottage was a magnificent shambles, the walls decorated with photographs of Dick , Maurice and other stalwarts of the Carp Catchers Club. Old oil and paraffin lamps were the main source of lighting and a hand pump brought water up from a well. Originally a keepers cottage, hooks on the ceiling of the kitchen and inside shutters, it made an ideal club house and often after a working party the members of the syndicate would get together in front of the huge fireplace and chat about fish and fishing.
Amongst the many treasures I found at the cottage was an original Walker 42" split cane arm landing net. I later asked Maurice if I could use it and he said 'help yourself'. I put a new mesh on it and used it for the rest of the time I was at Woldale landing many fish in it. After I left the syndicate I heard the cottage had been broken into and the net stolen. I have my suspicions as to who the culprit was.
We sat by the tench lake and John told me stories of the characters that had fished there. Of BB's visit. John had come with Maurice to meet the writer who was half way through a weeks stay. They’d found him in the kitchen preparing an evening meal. Hanging from the hooks had been, a hare, an eel of about two pounds, and a bream of about three. The latter had a bucket placed underneath and there was a long stream of slime from the nose of the dead bream to the bucket. BB liked to live off the land.
Later that first day John left and I was free to prowl the whole estate. The place was a wildlife paradise. Combining ancient deciduous woodland with open pasture, a stream and two 3-4 acre man-made lakes, it was a haven for animals, birds and fish alike. I sat the dusk out and only left at badger screech after watching a barn owl quartering the sloping meadow beside the carp lake.
For the next few weeks I was feverish with anticipation. I built myself a Mk IV carp rod and a MK IV Avon from Walkers of Hythe kits. I greased , checked and double checked my Mitchell reels and loaded the spools with as much 11lb. Luron 2 as I could. Although Heron buzzers were available, I felt that the raucous row they produced would be out of place so I decided to use silver paper as a bite indicator. It had always worked in the past. Hooks were Model Perfects in various sizes
The going bait was potatoes, freelined I had been assured. Saturday mornings were spent on Grimsby market sorting out perfectly round new potatoes, one inch in diameter. Saturday evenings were spent par-boiling them. Sunday, chucking them in and watching the carp avoid them.
Another purchase on the market was a scabrous green blocked hat. In those days specimen hunters, or specialist anglers as they are now known, vied with each other to wear the most disreputable piece of head gear possible. Mine cost sixpence brand new and during wet weather acquired a smell that had an almost physical presence.
As the beginning of the 1963 season drew near, I prepared my swim with care. I chose to fish from the swim where Maurice Ingham had played a 17 pounder for 6 hours on light tackle thinking it to be a record (the record stood at 26lb. then). The grass was trimmed closely so that my cylinder of silver paper could rustle across it without hanging up. At the water’s edge, a screen of weeds was allowed to grow to hide my movements from any fish that might happen by. My seat consisted of an old JEEP squab bought from an army surplus store which meant I was sitting at ground level. Bait (potatoes) were kept in an OXO tin with a closely fitting hinged lid while worms were stored in a large jam jar full of grass.
I met several other members while I was baiting up and discovered that I was the only angler starting on the carp lake. Everyone else was opening the season with tench on the house pool. Later I learned this was a syndicate tradition, the dawn start climaxing in a bacon and egg breakfast where tales of the morning catches were swapped and compared.
A year later I started the season fishing next to Maurice. I was amused to see he was fishing with two rods – one with a left hand wind reel and the other with a right hand wind reel (Mitchells). I mentioned this and he told me he could fish either way, it was more convenient to have the reel handles on the outside of the rods !
Walker had described the Woldale carp as ‘stealthy’. I was soon forced to agree with him. The only time they showed was when the sun was strong on the shallows and they lay like aquatic pigs, warming their glistening backs. They occasionally betrayed their presence by violent reed waving and less seldom by bubbling and ‘smokescreening’ but I very rarely saw a fish leap or roll. Later in the season when the water crowfoot flowered and the lake resemble a meadow, here and there individual fish could be seen lying in little inlets in the weed occasionally clooping and pulsing up and down. I was convinced that the fish were actually eating the weed despite what the experts said about carp not eating vegetation. So convinced was I that this was so that I planned fishing an anchored pop-up brussel sprout after one particularly frustrating session trying to tempt fish to leave the cover of the weed.
That first night exceeded my wildest expectations. Despite problems with bream that gradually whittled down my potatoes, I caught three carp. Two of them were like peas in a pod at 14lb 2ozs each while the third was a small fish of four and a half pounds. They were retained in a two hundred weight wheat sack till daylight and then photographed and returned.
Although I didn’t realise it then, the fish were very long for their weight and must have weighed much more at one time. I caught several doubles that first season but all were less than than those two 14 pounders which I now think were the biggest fish in the lake at that time. There was much talk amongst the members about the carp ‘going back’ in weight and condition as they got older. One fish, which I christened Old Tatty because of his terrible condition, weighed twelve and a half pounds that first season, four years later came out at eight and a half to a guest and the following year was found dead, an emaciated shadow of his former self.