Whippsy : crusting for carp in the 70s
Cliff remembers a teenage carping exploit which sparked a new angler
Steve Whipps has been a firm friend of mine for well over thirty years and yet I can not recall any defining moment when the bond was established. The same thing might well be said for most friendships, but I didn’t grow up with Steve, nor did we attend the same school – indeed, we lived in different towns. I feel pretty sure though that a mutual interest in under-age drinking brought us together some time around 1970 and in the public bar of The Knight of Aveley.
I’d have been sixteen or seventeen years of age, eager for adulthood, and nurturing both facial bum-fluff and the deepest voice I could muster on my regular visits to the ‘local’. Double Diamond it would have been, or, perhaps, a light and bitter? – Yes, the latter, because you invariably landed-up with more than a pint. Jeff Burrett, Kelvin ‘Larne’ Larner and Steve Ashton were the pals with whom I shared the corner table most Friday nights, but occasionally the frantic whirr of a Honda 125 followed by the distinctive click of the brass door-latch would herald the arrival of two young bikers and an unwelcome intake of cold night air; Whippsy was the jollier of the two, animated, outgoing, and confident enough to sport a teenaged beard in a mature male domain. That takes some guts when you’re seventeen. Fortunately, the face-fuzz was dark and, coupled with rimless spectacles, the visage ensured that his ‘usual’ was served without so much as a hint of suspicion from the landlady.
My recall is excellent as a rule, able to conjure-up fine details of events and news items from childhood even, but try as I might, I can not remember how the pair of us became sufficiently matey to agree to a night’s fishing for carp; he must have overheard me enthusing about the power of these fish, and though Steve had never wielded a rod in his life, he was – and is – one of those rare individuals who really is ‘up for anything’. I have always loved and admired spontaneity in a person and would have displayed no hesitation in inviting him to my favourite and jealously-guarded lake.
Aware of the non-angler’s perception of fish, fishing and fishermen, I used our one or two brief meetings before the Big Night to impress upon Whippsy that he was being thrown in at the deep-end; would be undergoing a baptism of fire; running before he could walk, but all the metaphors, advice and instruction in the world would not prepare him for his encounter with Cyprinus Carpio! Should he hook one, I explained – a little too patronizingly, perhaps - nothing would be ‘wriggling’ on the end of his string: ‘reeling it in’ was too simplistic a description of how he might get to lay hands on his prize.
Certain rules were to be strictly observed on the night: (I thought of pipe-smoking airmen, Kent, 1942, pre-raid briefing, but managed to stifle the silly grin that threatened to quash my credibility) calls of nature were to be answered well back from the water, the point of excretion having been reached on all-fours. Smoking: Allowed. Indeed, compulsory. All light-ups to be effected under the cover of donkey-jacket or similar heavy garment of black-out quality. No torches. Torches, I stressed, were for wimps. And ‘bites’ I winced, but continued for the benefit of the novice angler, would be detected without the aid of any device more complex than a cylinder of cooking-foil hanging on the line.
It was mid to late summer for sure because the nights were long and I do, indeed, recall sitting at length, quietly chatting and smoking with Steve right into the wee, small hours. I’d chosen a spot known to me as a regular night-time haunt of surface-feeding carp, a small bay fringed with tall reeds which provided cover for fish and angler alike. I knew that at some point during a still and humid night, a small clooping of large carp would steal in to nose about those reeds and the thin film of scum they fenced-in. Hours before, as the lights had started to dim, Whippsy had had his perception of ‘bait’ turned upside-down on seeing me threadle a crust the size of a cigarette pack to the No.4 Model Perfect.
‘Will a carp eat all of that? In one go?’ Steve asked.
‘No problem’ I assured him, savouring the thoughtful silence that followed, then a breathy four-lettered word…
Now, with the luminous Timex showing almost 02.30hrs, we sat wondering what to discuss next. We’d pulled the yanks out of Vietnam and abolished the monarchy by midnight, turning – inevitably and gratefully - onto the subject of girls. Great stuff, but I knew such talk to be counter-productive – in angling terms – and quickly changed the subject after two and a half hours. You had to think carp, I said, will them to your bait, lay face-down on the bank and make clooping noises in the margin if you felt it might help, but whatever you did, pleasant piscatorial thoughts should fill your head when fishing for carp, I said, and resumed squinting into the bay for signs of activity.
Our free-lined crusts had long ceased to be visible but could not have drifted further than our modest underarm swings would have allowed, a tether of no more than a rod-length. As all night fishermen know, no matter how diligently you keep tracks of your crust’s whereabouts, even in daylight, it will seize the opportunity to disappear, or to turn into an oak apple, the moment you glance away.
We were, then, dependent on intuition and the detection of subtle stirrings in the darkness before us, seemingly thick and viscous like a spill of the blackest crude. Still was that night, and warm, a Tom Sawyer night of steamy everglades and rasping crickets, short sleeves and open necks.
I knew something would happen before long and quietly informed Steve of my feeling, one borne of nothing more than experience; at the tender age of seventeen, I’d occupied a space on this lake a thousand times it seemed, day and night. I knew its moods and was now charged with the certainty of imminent action. I urged Steve to stay low and to cup his glowing roll-up, remembering then that he was both new to the game and my guest. I wanted him to succeed. Somewhat belatedly, I carefully tested the clutch of his ‘300’ and adjusted the tension-cap to allow both a firm strike and the safe surrender of line under strain; a large fish imitating a depth-charge directly under the rod-tip is a challenge for the most seasoned of anglers so if Steve was to be the blessed one tonight he’d need all the help he could get. I stressed the importance of timing, of striking ‘as though he meant it’ and of keeping a taut line at all times. The only serious snags in the lake were way out – sixty or seventy yards, maybe, and unlikely, I gambled, to be much of a problem. We didn’t speak for ages, content with the luxury of having nowhere to go and nothing to do other than watch and listen. Tiredness wasn’t mentioned. Our silence was of concentration, not of fatigue, and contrary to my expectations Steve remained as keen and alert as he’d been hours before.
It was me, though, who perceived the subtle push of surface-film at the entrance to our bay, perhaps twenty feet out and heading toward us. Immediately behind was another, bolder disturbance – no sound, just the confident swirling and circling of a large carp silently pushing low, dark circles into the reeds to our right. Steve’s crust was in there somewhere and I urged him to stay still but vigilant. Nonetheless, but quite understandably, Steve slowly craned forward to position his right hand, talon-like, over the cork, and at that moment I knew he was hooked for life. I don’t think either of us breathed for a full minute such was the intensity of our expectation.
‘Be ready!’ I whispered hoarsely. I’d seen the tremor of a single reed and heard the daintiest of sips.
‘I heard it, too!’ said Steve. ‘Look! Look at the silver paper!’ Like a magician’s trick, the Baco-foil tube lifted and hesitated mid-air, then faintly screeched its way up to kiss the cane…
‘Go on, Steve…now!’
What happened then has been retold a hundred times, I suspect, in the bars of Copenhagen where Steve now lives, for in less than the instant it takes to strike, the rod was wrenched down and levering Whippsy out of his low-chair to the tortured screams of the Mitchell. Within seconds a good forty yards of line had been violently ripped from the spool, positively mortifying Whippsy.
‘What the f…!’
‘Just hold on’ I urged as calmly as possible ‘He’ll slow down in a moment’. But ‘he’ didn’t.
The fish – seemingly rocket powered – surged frighteningly and with increasing strength and speed toward the far bank, Steve hanging on and wondering what on Earth he’d hooked. The same thought went through my mind, too, having hooked and subdued dozens of Main Pool carp the previous season. It simply wouldn’t stop. Like a machine with one speed the carp ploughed on straight and consistently as if on tracks, the rod ‘set’ in a permanent curve, the reel about to seize or explode, I feared. This was no ‘battle’, no ‘fight’, but sheer intimidation! I knew how tightly the clutch had been set and, anyway, the rod simply could not have sustained such an arc unless the line had been under considerable tension.
‘What do I do?’ Steve implored to the bobbing of his glowing roll-up.
‘I dunno, Pal! Just hang on’ I replied with a hint of a nervous chuckle, then ‘tighten that cap a fraction more!’ Steve did as I suggested and the rod flattened-out near poker-straight, leaving Steve in a tug-o’-war…and the line silently parted.
‘It’s gone’ Steve announced without expression ‘It was like a train!’
Night could not conceal the nervous trembling that wracked his arms and shoulders, and I needed no daylight to know of his empty face – the open mouth, the hollow eyes. I felt exactly the same. A collage of past encounters with Main Pool carp whizzed and flashed through my mind but at no time did I reach for the pause–button…this was without precedent, beyond my experience to this day.
Steve became a Danish citizen some 25 years ago, marrying, fathering and, more importantly, running a highly patronized angling club with great success. He has enjoyed more than his fair share of success with big Jutland carp but, he tells me, nothing has even approached his experience on the Main Pool, 1970.