Soulhooked

Choose life. Choose a lake. Choose a swim. Choose a bait. Choose a rig. Choose sleepless nights under the stars. Choose the nocturnal music of branches creaking in the wind, leaves whispering and the eerie night-calls of owls and wildfowl. Choose bright moons shattered in the rippling surface of lakes and purple skies at sunset, perfectly mirrored. Choose silent mist-shrouded pools at dawn. Choose visions of white-flowering waterlilies turning green-gold in the half-light. Choose the flashing bronze flanks of carp, twisting below the surface on the edge of visibility. Choose a heightened heart-rate. Choose an emotional rollercoaster. Choose the psychological assault-course of planning, watching, locating, preparing, casting and waiting. Choose the endless hours of strung-out anticipation. Choose the rush of striking, hooking, fighting and landing (or losing) the fish. Choose to walk the tightrope between desperate failure and the adrenaline-inducing, life-enhancing triumphant high of success. Choose life. Choose obsession. Choose Carp Fishing.

The addictive nature of this activity is legendary. Look at the titles of popular carp books: “Fever,” “Obsession,” and “Passion” among them. They convey the authors’ utter devotion to this branch of angling, ranging from the intensely emotional to the moderately disturbed and even the downright unhealthy. They describe a relationship between anglers and their quarry that borders on psychological dependence.

Almost a century ago and probably beyond, angling authors were applying similar descriptions to carp fishing. Arthur Ransome famously likened it to opium and set a challenge for the ultimate book about carp. Twenty years later, BB responded  with“Confessions of a Carp Fisher" his celebrated classic. Ransome’s demand was for:

“A true account of the life of an habitual carp fisher … a book to set beside de Quincey’s “Confessions of an English Opium Eater”… a book of taut nerves, of hallucinations, of a hypnotic state... of visions... and then rare moments when this long-drawn-out tautness of expectation is resolved into a frenzy of action…”
(Arthur Ransome “Rod and line” Jonathan Cape 1929).

Of course carp fishing in Ransome’s or in BB’s time was vastly different from carp fishing now. The fish are bigger these days and there are more of them, but back when monster carp were an impossible dream for most, for those few well-connected carp men it must have been paradise. Truly a “life on the isle of the lotus” as Sheringham described it.




Times change. Carp fishing has changed. Today it has become democratised with fishing, fisheries and fish available for the many not just the few. As the sport has grown, expectations have also grown (as have permit fees). International competitions, day-and-night ticket waters, commercial fisheries, profit-generating ‘syndicates’ and so on can all be seen, when viewed from some perspectives, as positive developments. They allow all-comers to enjoy the experience and business-savvy anglers to make a living from their passion, but there has been payback in terms of competition for bank space and, ironically, in a pastime which owes so much to "getting away from it all" problems which accompany overcrowding in any aspect of life are now part and parcel of carp fishing.

Technologically too, carp fishing has been far from immune to progress. Amazing materials, tackle items and baits are continually being developed. Yet there is a sense among some that this, along with ever-increasing stocks of selectively-bred, sizeable carp, only diminishes the challenge. Their perception is that carp fishing has been made easier by the industry it feeds, for the sake of profit. It's a hard one to deny. The correllation between catch rates, weights and ticket sales is a fact of life for commercial fishery owners. Tackle firms rely on results too, and the more catches on their products, the better. Yet, while there are those who prefer to fish for months on end for perhaps one bite from one big, special carp, there are many who simply enjoy a few hours fishing with a good chance of a bend in the rod. At least for now, both groups seem to be well-catered for.

Due to the way it has evolved, carp fishing has become the entry point into fishing for most new anglers whereas once it was the preserve of more experienced fishermen, having served an ‘apprenticeship’ in general coarse disciplines. Once again, opinion is inevitably divided on whether this is a positive development.

And yet, despite all the changes down the decades, fundamentally and crucial to its popularity, something at the core of carp fishing remains unaltered and unalterable. The way it can get under a persons skin, become a dominant force in their life, invade their sleeping and waking mind to a point where they become easily distracted from 'important' matters and instead enter a relationship of dependency with the activity of catching, or trying to catch carp.

As numerous celebrated experts have shown, through their dedication to the pursuit of big carp, and often through the power of their writing, this strange obsession has endured through all that has gone on in the intervening years. It is the same now as when BB wrote his masterpiece.

And to prove it, thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life, mostly otherwise normal blokes – and even a few women - now regularly and happily exchange a night out on the town, an evening of relaxation in front of the telly or the comfort of a warm bed for a few hours sitting by a weedy pond or a windswept pit. Many fish for days, some for weeks on end. To the non-angler this seems insane. Surely waiting for a bite can't be that enjoyable, have such an influence on someone's life? Are carp anglers mad? Or just stupid?

Conversations between carp anglers are observed by the non-afflicted with similar incredulity. Among its aficionados, rarely is carp-fishing mentioned calmly or briefly - more often, carp conversations express barely-controlled excitement. With knowledge shared, elaborate plans discussed and endless stories recycled, the enthusiastic chat will last for hours - often for years, even lifetimes - as long as those friendships last, in fact.

Somebody (I can’t recall who it was) once said there are even traces of near-religious fervour in carp anglers’ behaviour, citing the bizarre rituals, the hours spent in trance-like meditation, the phrases and ‘language of the priesthood’ (jargon) that signify membership of the carp cult. The fishermen were likened to waterside monks in search of enlightenment or primitive shamans communing with the spirits of animals. The person who observed this was of course a carp angler. To even contemplate parallels between pulling a fish out with a hook and mystic devotion is confirmation to non-anglers that the spiritual home of carp fishing really is Dagenham (a couple of stops short of Barking).

Most anglers are, it is said, men who haven’t properly grown up – this point is acknowledged almost proudly by anglers themselves, particularly carp anglers. Fishing of any kind isn't just the pursuit of fish but also of adventure. It is about the joy of pure play and thus allows you to return to a time of life less troubled. This childlike, (or childish) sensibility, has also been seized upon gleefully by those who, for whatever motive, wish to disparage carp anglers and their activities.

Carper’s partners (or carpWAGs) are most fond of this form of ridicule. Favourites include: “You’ve got some kind of weird Peter Pan complex. Maybe you should see a shrink”…or… “Sounds like you’re trying to justify avoiding your responsibilities again.”

But the partners of the afflicted have genuine cause to despair. They will point to jobs left undone, neglect of other pressing concerns (like themselves). And they are right to. Carp-addiction can manifest itself in extreme ways. Stories abound of bad decisions made, bankruptcies caused and friendships terminated due to an inability to resist the pull of the lakeside, the calling, the need for a bigger fish, another fix... Modern myth has it that carp fishing is frequently cited as a factor in divorce cases.

From my own perspective, for a long time I felt I was quite mildly afflicted. By rewarding me with a sense of peace, a harmonious state of being and a kind of wholeness which I carried far beyond the lakeside, I was sure that carp fishing helped me become a more social, easy-to-live-with kind of person. Ultimately I’d concluded that, if carp fishing was like a drug as Ransome, BB and Bernard Venables had all described it, it was for me a therapeutic one - a medicine. Carp fishing was a tranquiliser in a very positive sense - a psychological restorative, or stress-reliever. It made me sane, not mad, and thus I self-medicated with abandon.

Whenever I’ve been called to justify my indulgence in carp fishing, I’ve always used the “It’s a therapeutic, battery-recharging hobby,” defence, but I’m no longer even persuaded myself. In the end with all the evidence pointing to the contrary, I had to give up trying to justify it altogether. “Acknowledging you have a problem is the first step in solving that problem” or so it says in the Carp Anglers Anonymous literature. A seasoned carp-junkie I know all about denial and if I want to move on, I have to face up to the fact that I have been thoroughly hooked for most of my adult life. “My name is Greg and I’m a recovering carp addict.”

For more years than I care to count, carp fishing has given me a roller-coaster ride of emotion and sensation and my mood has swung with the wind-changes. Down the decades this obsession has led me seek bigger and better highs, and bigger fish. Although there have been moments of triumph, more often the carp has been the victor. Yet it has obsessed me like it obsesses the worst offenders.

I must be careful not to romanticise it. This addiction to carp fishing has taken years from my life and left me a frazzled remnant of my former self. Although at times it's been immensely pleasurable and fulfilling, it has been an equally destructive force, wrecking relationships, friendships and career opportunities. I must now face up to the facts. Pronouncements like: "I ‘don’t have a problem with it," or "I could give it up tomorrow if I wanted," no longer ring true - or so my shrink tells me, and that’s why I’m currently in rehab (I said roach, roach, roach).

It isn't easy – I'm not prepared to suffer the horror of going ‘cold bream’. That’s too horrendous to contemplate - and although chasing the gudgeon and mainlining the occasional bag of chub gives some relief, it still doesn’t feel like a proper substitute and I have to be on my guard. Although I know for some, the addiction that is carp fishing seizes only briefly, for most it never releases its grip and even when you’ve kicked the habit, just the thought of one more fix is enough to bring you back.

You don’t mean it to happen. You’re down by the water’s edge. All is tranquil and your thoughts drift lazily among the rippling waters and the reeds, when you find yourself contemplating an illicit final hit just for old time’s sake. What harm could it do? Just the one… And soon you are back with your gear, experiencing that familiar sensation rushing through your veins again, the bliss and pain of that old fire kicking in, and then bang! The rod hoops round, the reel screams, and that final hit becomes the first of many.

I’ve been there before you see, and that's why I must be careful. More than a decade ago it last happened, following another ten years of abstinence from all matters carp-related. Years spent fully on the wagon and fully engaged with ‘real life’ but then I got the itch. By chance, I stumbled on some old fishing books. Inspired by what I read I sought out my rods where I'd left them rotting in a corner of my parents’ garage. Soon I was walking round a carp lake in high summer, every part of me craving the good stuff, crying out to fish again. And that was it. Within a year I was back on the bank with the rods, the net, the bait… the works.

I had succumbed once more to the lure of this dark soul-medicine. Returned, like a fiend, to the baiting needle.