Records will be broken

woensdag 27 januari 2010
along with the soul and spirit of angling... een Engels artikel gaat dieper in op de mystiek van onze sport

An angler holds 'Benson' the UK's biggest and favourite Carp

Benson was celebrated in life and death, but the ethics of carp fishing are now in the spotlight

The piece I most enjoyed writing last year was about the demise of a carp called Benson and the barmy level of coverage it received from the world’s media, at the height of the silly season.

This piece is also about carp, but it is going to give me less pleasure to write. It is about the extreme end of carp fishing — not about all carp fishing, but the thin end of it — where things have started to go awry. I am going to have to use some old-fashioned terms to explain exactly what has happened: terms such as “sportsmanship” and “ethics”.

The first 40lb carp ever taken in Britain was not banked until 1952. It was caught by Richard Walker as a result of research, reconnaissance and high angling skills. Walker’s feat caused rejoicing in the angling world and stole the sport’s headlines for weeks on end. Around the time Benson was turning her fins up, a commercial carp fishery — one of the many privately owned lakes that are artificially stocked, usually to high levels to ensure that paying customers catch something — produced five carp weighing more than 40lb apiece, to one angler, in 48 hours.

The angler was thrilled, but not as much as the fishery owner. The event brought the owner wide publicity. He used it to boast of plans to stock carp not of 40lb or 50lb or even 60lb if he could acquire them, but fish that would already be over the weight of the existing carp record of 67lb when they went into his water. While some in angling’s media railed against it, too many did not.

On another commercial fishery a little later, a match angler caught 682lb of carp in six hours: that is, 250-plus fish averaging over 2lb apiece, banked at a rate of one every 90 seconds or thereabouts, which time must also have included baiting the hook, casting out, hooking the fish, playing it, netting it, unhooking it and putting it into a keep-net for later weighing.

Why should anyone be troubled by either of these events, or with the floodlights being put on another lake so that match fishing can continue into the night, or even by the fact that a few individuals have begun to use electric-powered model boats to ferry baits and lines to places they could not reach with a cast? Here’s why.

In angling as most know it, size is relative: a 1lb fish from a water on which the average is eight ounces is a whopper and most fishermen would be delighted to catch it. But if all fish or significant numbers of fish are stocked at 1lb or for that matter 40lb — and five 40-pounders in a couple of days indicates a gross level of stocking with hand-reared porkers — where are the reasons for rejoicing and headlines then?

The willingness to go further, the wish to stock fish bigger than the prevailing record so that someone, on paper at least, can appear in the company of Walker and his like, shows the same disregard of ethics that so damaged trout fishing 30 years ago — a willingness to exploit that is utterly at odds with angling’s traditions.

The fact that on the second fishery 250 substantial fish can be caught at a rate of one every minute and a half suggests something else. It suggests not extraordinary angling skills but a water so stiff with fish that, unseen, they must be competing for food and grabbing at anything put in front of them.

Many will marvel that anyone should want to haul so many fish in such a way from such a water, but that is as may be. What will concern most anglers is the issue of fish welfare. The floodlighting of matches is in a lesser league and the use of bait boats is almost off the naughty scale, but still the first means the fish are given less respite and the second gives them fewer safe havens.

I repeat, none of this is typical of carp fishing as a whole, any more than carp fishing is representative of angling as a whole, but it is important. It tells us that commercial carp fishing is an overcrowded marketplace in which some fishery owners are willing to go to any lengths to attract custom. It tells us that commercial fisheries — and commercial carp fisheries especially — are under-regulated on fish welfare grounds, not only in stocking densities but, it is common knowledge, in the ease with which fish notorious for carrying disease can be moved illegally from one water to another and are, in all likelihood, being moved illegally from one country to another.

It tells us, too, that a minority of anglers must have had all sense of sportsmanship cut out with scalpels; they must have lost sight of the fundamentals that respect for the quarry is paramount and that weight for weight’s sake is devoid of all meaning.

It tells us something else. It is that angling — sleepy old angling, beguiling old angling, the angling that draws millions of us out to our sliding rivers and wraith-wreathed lakes — is prey, at its fringes, to the same human foibles as every other human activity, football, rugby and motor racing not excluded; that, for a few, the need to make a quick buck and to “win” at all costs, overwhelms.

Ethics still exist everywhere, although they keep themselves well hidden. The word sportsmanship is still used in football, cricket and motor racing if, gradually, the term is evolving to mean what is acceptable. It would be a great pity if angling — dotty old angling, innocent old angling, increasingly commercialised old angling — were to go the same way. All of us — anglers, fishery owners and the sport’s media — need to become more alert, more aware and more vocal.

A new year seems a good time to start.

• Brian Clarke’s fishing column appears on the first Monday of each month.