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Sheringham on Carp

Hugh Tempest Sheringham was a famous all-rounder and was angling editor of The Field from 1903 until 1930. We have published this story to give an idea of how exotic double-figure carp seemed before the Carp Catcher's Club began their work in the early 1950s. At the time this story was published, only a dozen carp weighing more than 8 pounds were caught on average in any given year, so this was a fish to write home about.

This piece was first published in Coarse Fishing, 1912

HT SheringhamFor practical purposes there are big carp and small carp. The latter you may sometimes hope to catch without too great a strain on your capacities. The former - well, men have been known to catch them, and there are just a few anglers who have caught a good many. I myself have caught one, and I will make bold to repeat the tale of the adventure as it was told in the Field of July 1, 1911. The narrative contains most of what I know concerning the capture of big carp. The most important thing in it is the value which it shows to reside in a modicum of good luck. So far as my experience goes, it is certain that good luck is the most vital part of the equipment of him who would seek to slay big carp. For some men I admit the usefulness of skill and pertinacity; for myself, I take my stand entirely on luck. To the novice I would say: “Cultivate your luck. Prop it up with omens and signs of good purport. Watch for magpies on your path. Form the habit of avoiding old women who squint. Throw salt over your left shoulder. Touch wood with the forefinger of your right hand whenever you are not doing anything else. Be on friendly terms with a black cat. Turn your money under the new moon. Walk round ladders. Don't start on a Friday. Stir the materials for Christmas pudding and wish. Perform all other such rites as you know or hear of. These things are important in carp-fishing.

And so to my story.

I had intended to begin this story in a much more subtle fashion, and only by slow degrees to divulge the purport of it, delaying the finale as long as possible, until it should burst upon a bewildered world like the last crashing bars of the 1812 Overture. But I find that, like Ennius (though without his justification for a somewhat assured proceeding), volito vivus per ora virum. Now that a considerable section of the daily Press has taken cognisance of the event, it is no good my delaying the modest confession that I have caught a large carp. It is true. But it is a slight exaggeration to state that the said carp was decorated with a golden ring bearing the words, ‘Me valde dilexit atque ornavit propter immensitatem meam Isaachius Walton, anno Domini MDCLIII.' Nor was it the weightiest carp ever taken. Nor was it the weightiest carp of the present season. Nor was it the weightiest carp of June 24. Nor did I deserve it. But enough of negation. Let me to the story, which will explain the whole of it.

To begin with, I very nearly did not go at all, because it rained furiously most of the morning. To continue, when towards noon the face of the heavens showed signs of clearness and my mind swiftly made itself up that I would go after all, I carefully disentangled the sturdy rod and the strong line, the triangle-hooks, and the other matters that had been prepared the evening before, and started armed with roach-tackle. The loss of half a day had told me that it was vain to think of big carp. You cannot, of course, fish for big carp in half a day. It takes a month. So subtle are these fishes that you have to proceed with the utmost precautions. In the first week, having made ready your tackle and plumbed the depth, you build yourself a wattled screen, behind which you may take cover. By the second week the fish should have grown accustomed to this, and you begin to throw in ground-bait composed of bread, bran, biscuits, peas, beans, strawberries, rice, pearl barley, aniseed cake, worms, gentles, banana, and potato. This ground-baiting must not be overdone. Half a pint on alternate evenings is as much as can safely be employed in this second week. With the third week less caution is necessary, because by now the carp will be less mindful of the adage concerning those who come bearing gifts. You may bear gifts daily, and the carp will, it is to be hoped, in a manner of speaking, look these gifts in the mouth-as carp should. Now, with the fourth week comes the critical time. All is very soon to be put to the touch.

On Monday you lean your rod (it is ready put up, you remember) on the wattled fence so that its top projects 18 inches over the water. On Tuesday you creep up and push it gently, so that the 18 inches are become 4 feet. The carp, we hope, simply think that it is a piece of the screen growing well, and take no alarm. On Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday you employ the final and great ruse. This is to place your line (the depth has already been plumbed, of course) gently in the water, the bullet just touching the bottom so that the float cocks, and the 2 feet of gut which lie on the bottom beyond it terminating with a bait in which is no fraudful hook. This so that the carp may imagine that it is just a whim of the lavish person behind the screen (be sure they know you are there all the time) to tie food to some fibrous yet innocuous substance. And at last, on Saturday, the 31st of the month, you fall to angling, while the morning mists are still disputing' with the shades of night. Now there is a hook within the honey paste, and woe betide any carp which loses its head. But no carp does lose its head until the shades of night are disputing with the mists of evening. Then, from your post of observation (50 yards behind the screen), you hear a click, click, which tells you that your reel revolves. A carp has made off with the bait, drawn out the 5 yards of line coiled carefully on the ground, and may now be struck. So you hasten up and strike. There is a monstrous pull at the rod point, something pursues a headlong course into the unknown depths, and after a few thrilling seconds there is a jar, a slackness of line, and you wind up sorrowfully. You are broken, and so home.

I mention these things by way of explaining why I had never before caught a really big carp, and also why I do not deserve one now. As I have said, I took with me to Cheshunt Lower Reservoir roach-tackle, a tin of small worms, and an intention to try for perch, with just a faint hope of tench. The natural condition of the water is weed, the accumulated growth of long years. When I visited it for the first time some eight years ago I could see nothing but weed, and that was in mid-winter. Now, however, the Highbury Anglers, who have rented the reservoir, have done wonders towards making it fishable. A good part of the upper end is clear, and elsewhere there are pitches cut out which make excellent feeding-grounds for fish and angling-grounds for men. Prospecting, I soon came to the forked sticks, which have a satisfying significance to the ground-bait­less angler. Someone else has been there before, and the new-comer may perchance reap the benefit of another man's sowing. So I sat me down on an empty box thoughtfully provided and began to angle. It is curious how great, in enclosed waters especially, is the affinity between small worms and small perch. For two hours I struggled to teach a shoal of small perch that hooks pull them distressfully out of the water.  It was in vain. Walton must have based his ‘wicked of the world’ illustration on the ways of small perch. I had returned about twenty and was gloomily observing my float begin to bob again when a cheery voice, that of Mr. R. G. Woodruff, behind me observed that I ought to catch something in that swim. I had certainly fulfilled the obligation; but it dawned on me that he was not speaking of small perch, and then that my rod was resting on the forked stick and myself on the wooden box of the hon. secretary of the Anglers’ Association. He almost used force to make me stay where I was, but who was I to occupy a place carefully baited for carp, and what were my insufficient rod and flimsy line that they should offer battle to 10 pounders? Besides, there was tea waiting for me, and I had had enough of small perch.

So I made way for the rightful owner of the pitch, but not before he had given me good store of big lob­worms, and also earnest advice at any rate to try for carp with them, roach-rod or no roach-rod.     He told me of a terrible battle of the evening before, when a monster took his worm in the dark and also his cast and hook. Whether it travelled north or south he could hardly tell in the gloom, but it travelled far and successfully. He hoped that after the rain there might be a chance of a fish that evening. Finally, I was so far persuaded that during tea I looked out a strong cast and a perch-hook on fairly stout gut, and soaked them in the teapot till they were stained a light brown. Then, acquiring a loaf of bread by good fortune, I set out to fish. There were plenty of other forked sticks here and there which showed where other members had been fishing, and I finally decided on a pitch at the lower end, which I remembered from the winter as having been the scene of an encounter with a biggish pike that got off after a considerable fight. There, with a background of trees and bushes, some of whose branches made handling a l4-foot rod rather difficult, it is possible to sit quiet and fairly inconspicuous. And there accordingly I sat for three hours and a quarter, watching a float which only moved two or three times when a small perch pulled the tail of the lobworm, and occupying myself otherwise by making pellets of paste and throwing them out as ground-bait.

Though fine, it was a decidedly cool evening, with a high wind; but this hardly affected the water, which is entirely surrounded by a high bank and a belt of trees. Nor was there much to occupy attention except when a great fish would roll over in the weeds far out, obviously one of the big carp, but 100 yards away. An occasional moorhen and a few rings made by small roach were the only other signs of life. The black tip of my float about 8 yards away, in the dearth of other interests, began to have an almost hypnotizing influence. A little after half-past eight this tip trembled and then disappeared, and so intent was I on looking at it that my first thought was a mild wonder as to why it did that. Then the coiled line began to go through the rings, and I realized that here was a bite. Rod in hand, I waited till the line drew taut, and struck gently.  Then things became confused. It was as though some submarine suddenly shot out into the lake. The water was about 6 feet deep, and the fish must have been near the bottom, but he made a most impressive wave as he dashed straight into the   weeds about 20 yards away, and buried himself some 10 yards deep in them. ‘And so home,’ I murmured to myself, or words of like significance, for I saw not the faintest chance of getting a big fish out with a roach-rod and a fine line. After a little thought, I decided to try hand-lining, as one does for trout, and, getting hold of the line - with some difficulty, because the trees prevented the rod-point going far back - I proceeded to feel for the fish with my hand. At first there was no response; the anchorage seemed immovable.

Then I thrilled to a movement at the other end of the line, which gradually increased until the fish was on the run again, pushing the weeds aside as he went, but carrying a great streamer or two with him on the line. His run ended, as had the first, in another weed-patch, and twice after that he seemed to have found safety in the same way. Yet each time hand-lining was efficacious, and eventually I got him out into the strip of clear water, where the fight was an easier affair, though by no means won. It took, I suppose, from fifteen to twenty minutes before I saw a big bronze side turn over, and was able to get about half the fish into my absurdly small net. Luckily, by this time he had no kick left in him, and I dragged him safely up the bank and fell upon him. What he weighed I had no idea, but I put him at about 12 pounds, with a humble hope that he might be more. At any rate, he had made a fight that would have been considered very fair in a 12 pound salmon, the power of his runs being certainly no less and the pace of them quite as great. On the tackle I was using, however, a salmon would have fought longer.

The fish knocked on the head, I was satisfied, packed up my tackle, and went off to see what the other angler had done. So far he had not had a bite, but he meant to go on as long as he could see, and hoped to meet me at the train. He did not do so, for a very good reason: he was at about that moment engaged in a grim battle in the darkness with a fish that proved ultimately to be 1 ounce heavier than mine, which, weighed on the scales at the keeper's cottage, was 16 pounds 5 ounces. As I owe him my fish, because it was by his advice I put on the strong cast, and the bait was one of his lob­ worms, he might fairly claim the brace. And he would deserve them, because he is a real carp-fisher, and has taken great pains to bring about his success. For myself - well, luck attends the undeserving now and then. One of them has the grace to be thankful.