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The illicit attraction of the lowly carp

In April of last year, under the crisp light of an embryonic English spring, Darren Wakenell pulled his Citroën hatchback onto the gravel driveway of Timberland, a private fishery nestled improbably among stratospheric smokestacks on an industrial estate about an hour’s drive from London. Wakenell is a postman turned fishery-enforcement officer with the U.K.’s Environment Agency, and Timberland is one of some 300 fisheries that he and his partner, Stephen Robinson, patrol.

Along the ramshackle banks of Timberland’s Mystery Lake, one of five waters the fishery comprises, Wakenell parked his car within sight of a few wispy-haired men lounging on deck chairs. Each seat was surrounded by a jumble of angling equipment and grubby Tupperware, and was separated from the others by enough distance to spare the men, and their dogs, the necessity of interaction. Robinson, a former military-police officer in khaki pants and a knife-proof vest, led the approach. “If it all kicks off with one of these guys,” Wakenell warned me in a whisper, “just walk back to the car. We’ll handle it.” He fingered an extendable truncheon that hung from his belt and strode toward a middle-aged man who was patiently ignoring our presence.

Illustrations by Matthew Richardson

Illustrations by Matthew Richardson

After a few minutes, the man looked up from a margarine tub full of writhing maggots and offered a conciliatory smile. “Nice to see the Environment Agency showing a presence round these parts,” he said, drawing his rod license from his wallet without being asked. “They’ve had a lot of problems, haven’t they? People keep taking the carp.”

The carp grows in estimation the farther east he travels. In the United States, he is often branded a rough fish or, more damningly, a trash fish, a catch that is good for neither cuisine nor sport, food nor glory. The so-called Asian carp, an unscientific amalgam of four species, is loathed up and down the Mississippi River, where he outcompetes local fish and is known to leap from the water at the sound of a propeller, bruising the eyes and breaking the bones of passing sailors.

When he comes to England, the carp’s fortunes elevate considerably. Here, as Izaak Walton wrote three and a half centuries ago in The Compleat Angler, the carp is regarded as “the Queen of Rivers, a stately, a good, and a very subtil fish.” Indeed, in 2015, a drawing of the fish was printed on the rod license, which most anglers carry in their wallet as though it were a cherished family photograph. As the fish enters Poland he discovers that he is no longer merely good: now he is considered a delicacy, eaten in place of turkey or ham as the nation’s favorite Christmas dish.

HA069__03HK0-1By the time he reaches Japan, the carp has grown in both confidence and chic. Gone is the glum pallor and gormless mouth. Here the koi — a variety of the common carp — is prized not for subtlety but for its opposite: his papery fins and drooping mustache are judged to be the height of aquatic elegance. In Japan the fish may be considered a family heirloom, even a life companion. Hanako, the longest-living specimen on record, was born in 1751 and handed down through generations until she died, two centuries later, at the unlikely age of 226. Her final owner, Komei Koshihara, described Hanako in a 1966 radio broadcast as his dearest friend.

If the Japanese prize the carp’s longevity, the Polish his taste, and the Americans his absence, for English anglers the one attribute that counts above all others is his weight. In Britain you’re not considered an accomplished fisher of carp until you’ve landed a twenty-pounder. Fishermen peer into the watery murk at sunrise, hoping to catch a glimpse of a thirty-pound colossus — something you could, as one angler likes to quip, “put a saddle on.” A forty-pounder will make the lake in which he lives famous, drawing anglers from across the country to camp out for days on end. A fifty-pounder tempted from his lake will have his picture published in angling magazines. The landing of a sixty-pound carp regularly makes national headlines.

According to Environment Agency estimates, each year more than 4 million people in the U.K. engage in “coarse fishing,” the British term for nongame freshwater angling, and that figure continues to rise. To meet the surging demand, many British landowners have dug holes on their estates, filled them with carp, and established new fisheries. It’s a lucrative business: bids for a permit to fish the first week of the season at a reputable British still water can exceed $2,000.

Fisheries need big, braggable fish to justify such prices, but the money-makers, the forty-, fifty-, and sixty-pounders that can turn their captors into heroes, take years to grow and are rarely offered for sale. As a result, the growth of the British angling industry has been shadowed by a booming market in stolen carp. Nearly 2,000 people were prosecuted for illegal fishing last year, with license cheats paying more than $600,000 in fines. Bruno Broughton, a fisheries-management consultant, estimated that organized carp thefts in recent years have yielded hauls worth “in excess of £100,000” each — more than $120,000.

“This form of crime is a lot more widespread than is believed,” says Alun Bradshaw, a wildlife-crimes officer for the police who regularly works with the Environment Agency to catch carp thieves. “Some fishery owners do not care how they get their fishery stocked, so long as they get some large carp that will attract anglers looking to catch large fish.” A rangy man with close-cropped dark hair, Bradshaw is responsible for investigating fish crime in the county of Cambridgeshire. The recent spike in carp theft, he suggested, was a matter of simple economics. Anglers risk a $6,000 fine if they are caught stealing fish, but with forty-pounders selling for more than twice that, poachers stand to make sizable profits if they escape the law.

In the summer of 2014, Bradshaw received an email from a local angler that noted a series of suspicious photographs on the Facebook page of a recently founded commercial fishery near the city of Peterborough. The anonymous fisherman said that the carp in the photographs had been taken from a local river and nearby lakes; he knew because he’d caught them before and recognized their features. Within a few weeks Bradshaw had collected enough information to act on the tip. He and ten other police officers and Environment Agency staff met around the corner from the Peterborough fish farm to execute what they called Operation Vulcan. “Officers approached the house and a static caravan on the fishery, and the two suspects were arrested on suspicion of handling stolen goods,” Bradshaw told me. For the next six hours the team netted the lake, removing the carp one by one and photographing each specimen, looking for deformed fins, missing scales, and other distinguishing marks that would positively identify a translocated fish.

Bruno Broughton told me that the first recorded cases of organized carp theft in the U.K. date to the mid-1960s. A man caught two large fish in Knotford Lagoon, a former gravel quarry, and decided to transfer them to a lake close to what is now the Leeds Bradford Airport. He came unprepared, however, and had to order a taxi for himself and the fish, which he’d wrapped in wet sacks. The driver, who had never had a pair of live carp in the back of his taxi before, recounted the story to his friends, and news of the crime soon reached the police.

Fifty years later, carp crime remains, in the majority of cases, equally unsophisticated. In England, it usually involves cars and the cover of darkness. While some thieves use a conventional rod and line, police have seen other methods as well, ranging from the blunt (sending an electric current through the water and netting the unconscious fish as they float to the surface) to the innovative (attaching baited lines to bungee cords that keep self-hooked fish from breaking free). Carp are able to survive almost indefinitely in a small amount of aerated water, Broughton explained to me, which makes it easy to transport a fish in a tank or tub until a buyer can be found.

The roots of England’s obsession with gigantic carp can be found at Redmire Pool, a tiny lake near the Welsh border. It was here, eighty years ago, that Donald Leney, a nonangling fish farmer, seeded the nation’s interest in the fish. Redmire sits at the base of a green hill less than a kilometer from Bernithan Court, a small, stately home that fell into disrepair during the 1890s. (Turkeys took over the drawing room.) In 1926, Lieutenant Colonel Ernald Barnardiston bought the estate, and as part of his renovation work he decided to stock a nearby lake with carp. (To compensate, perhaps, for evicting the turkeys.) Eight years later, Leney delivered fifty yearling carp, all between five and a half and eight inches long, that he’d obtained from a Dutch farm north of Vaassen. The Barnardistons rechristened the lake Redmire after discovering that the fish churned up red sand while they fed.

Redmire became famous in 1951, when a local angler caught a mirror carp that weighed 31.4 pounds, a new British record. His feat attracted attention, and the following year that attention turned to adulation when, at the end of an overnight session, a former World War II pilot named Richard Walker caught a common carp weighing an unprecedented forty-four pounds. Walker, who had been eating cans of ravioli during his night’s fishing, named the catch after his pasta. Instead of returning him to the water, he called the Bristol Zoo to inquire whether they wanted to rehome the massive carp. Reportedly, the zookeeper who answered the phone misheard the weight as fourteen pounds and declined Walker’s offer. London Zoo’s line was clearer, apparently, since Ravioli was soon carried to the city by two zoo employees in the back of a van.

Walker’s Redmire record stood for three decades, until, in June 1980, a young angler named Chris Yates stuck three pieces of sweet corn to the end of his line with a bit of Plasticine. Using a rod that Walker had fashioned in 1955, Yates hauled a 51.5-pound mirror carp from the same waters that had hosted Ravioli. “Casting at that fish was like casting at the sun,” he later wrote of the experience. “I suddenly lost my focus in a fever of anticipation.” Yates described the fish, which he named the Bishop, as a “perfect monster.”

Redmire’s trio of consecutive records gave the lake a peculiar mystique, but by twenty-first-century standards, even its monsters become somewhat less impressive. Using heated tanks and high-protein diets, British fish breeders today are regularly able to push carp as high as thirty pounds and beyond.

There currently remain, however, only a handful of known sixtypounders in England. The largest of these lives in Cranwells, a twenty-acre lake on the Wasing Estate, about an hour from London’s Piccadilly Circus. To taxonomists, he’s known as a mirror carp, after the broad and lavish scales flung across his back, but to the legions of anglers who hope for an opportunity to hunt this white whale among freshwater leviathans, he’s known as the Parrot.

The Parrot is a descendant of the carriageload of fish that Donald Leney delivered to Redmire in 1934, and at 68.1 pounds he now holds the official British record. (In September, a thirty-three-year-old investment banker named Tom Doherty caught a 70.4-pound carp in Shropshire; the fish, however, named Big Rig, is believed to be an immigrant, reared in France, leading to the contesting of the title. Doherty says he has received death threats related to the disputed claim.) Brian Humphries, who runs a windshield-replacement business in Gloucestershire, stalked the Parrot for four years before catching him. He’s lifted the fish out of the water three times now, and has compared landing the carp to wrestling Mike Tyson. If the Parrot decides that he’s not ready to be reeled in, Humphries told me, there’s not a lot that you can do. “At the end of the day he’s essentially a giant reproductive muscle,” he said. “If he doesn’t want to be caught, you just have to let him go.”

At Wasing, the lawns are manicured to uniformity, the hedges are sculpted into firm, pleasing shapes, and the hillsides are arranged in a tectonic cascade that leads the eye across Berkshire with an elegance that would make Capability Brown shrink with envy. Cranwells — home to several fifty-pounders in addition to the Parrot — is the most exclusive and prestigious of Wasing’s eight fishing lakes. Only sixty permits are made available each year, and they cost $1,000 each. A person who secures a permit is allowed to renew the membership annually for life, which means that aspiring members must wait for existing permit holders to depart, decease, or fall into disgrace.

Applications for the two or three permits that become available each year for Cranwells are heavily vetted. Since their assets are freely swimming in the water, the fishery’s owners want to ensure that members are trustworthy and competent enough to deal with a fish like the Parrot. Mike Bampton, the head bailiff at Wasing, told me that landing a carp that large requires a donkey-load of mats, nets, slings, and antiseptic. “Very few carp anglers have the necessary equipment to deal with a fish of this size once it’s on the bank,” he said.

To protect their fish from thievish attention, some fisheries have begun in recent years to ask members not to publicize photographs of their fish on the internet. But the Parrot is too famous for such measures. “Everyone knows where he lives,” Bampton said. “You’d never keep a fish like that quiet.” A soft-spoken, rakish middle-aged man with the stride of someone used to covering vast stretches of countryside on foot, Bampton first began fishing at Wasing in the early 2000s, several years after the three-year-old Parrot arrived from a local fish farm. For the past two years he has managed a team of fifteen other bailiffs; they are, essentially, the Parrot’s security detail. Every day and night the bailiffs patrol the lake, checking the anglers’ permits and ensuring that the three gates that guard the lake from the main road remain padlocked at all times. “It’s not to say you couldn’t do it,” Bampton said, as we shuddered over a pocked pathway in his mud-wrecked four-wheel drive. “But the thief would have to get in here first. We are fussy about the gates.”

Broughton, the fisheries consultant, believes that the Parrot is protected precisely because of his fame. “This fish is so well known among anglers that it would be like stealing the Mona Lisa. It may be priceless, but it would be almost impossible to sell on.” What’s more, there remains the difficulty of catching the elusive monster in the first place. Though some consider him a mug fish, the term given to a carp that is landed too often and considered reckless or slow to learn, the Parrot was caught only six times in the past two years. And even if a crooked angler got lucky (or resorted to brute force), the Parrot’s protectors are ever vigilant. “There are a lot of us down here a lot of the time,” said Bampton. “Even if nobody’s fishing, there are bailiffs always around to keep an eye on anything that’s going on.”

Bampton told me that while anglers often attempt to bribe him for a permit at Cranwells, nobody’s ever been “stupid enough” to offer him money for the Parrot. But the inside carp job has precedent. In 1999, Brian Barbrook, a bailiff employed by Thames Water, was asked to empty a reservoir of fish before it was drained. He was supposed to distribute the haul of fish, which included several large carp, to other reservoirs around the borough. Instead, he used ten of the fish to pay off a debt, and allegedly offered some of the others to a fish dealer, Anthony Silvester. “He showed up looking official in a Thames Water uniform, driving a Thames Water van,” Silvester told me. Silvester bought the fish, each of which carried forged papers, and sold them on to lake owners around the country. But since he hadn’t received the appropriate receipts, he alerted the Environment Agency. Barbrook was arrested that November. He denied involvement in the thefts. He was fired, and the next year he was charged with stealing fish worth a total of $30,000. (To this day Barbrook maintains his innocence. “I only ever wanted to run the best fishery,” he told me. “I was simply redistributing surplus fish. It was a big hoo-ha about nothing.”)

Steve Broad, the editor of Carpworld magazine, said that the case against Barbrook became especially well known because it was the first to establish that carp can be individually identified by their scale patterns. Today, whenever there is a raid on a fish farm that is suspected of selling stolen carp, wildlife officers release mug shots of the fish in hopes that local anglers will recognize a carp they’d previously caught and provide photographic evidence of the catch. In the wake of Operation Vulcan, Alun Bradshaw sent out a press release under the headline do you recognise these fish?

For Bradshaw, it was the criminal, rather than the fish, who got away. The Peterborough case collapsed because police couldn’t confirm that the anglers knew the carp were stolen. Bradshaw remains convinced that some of the carp he recovered from the farm were contraband, but he admits that there’s nothing to be done. The fish will remain in the fishery’s lake, and on Facebook.

At Timberland, Wakenell took the rod license from the angler with the tub of maggots and jotted down the number in his black notebook. “It’s the Polish, isn’t it?” the angler said. “They take the carp out and eat ’em. Why aren’t you lot doing something about that?”

The Environment Agency is, in fact, working on the problem — or, at least, the perceived problem. As we walked back to the car, Wakenell pointed out a sign fastened to a lamppost. It displayed a series of large, crossed-out red circles. One showed a stick figure running with a large fish under his arm. Another showed a fish sizzling on a saucepan. “Everybody can see what this means,” Wakenell said.

Right-wing tabloids in Britain have seized on the idea that the rise in carp theft in England is the fault of foreigners. angry anglers blame eastern european migrants for dramatic decline in city river’s fish stocks, exclaimed a Daily Mail headline in 2010. The indignation was further fueled by the news that Angliya, Britain’s Russian-language newspaper, had urged its immigrant readers to “catch their own” fish instead of shopping in markets. In 2010, the paper printed a cutout guide to four well-stocked lakes. At one of the recommended lakes, in Northamptonshire, seven Eastern European anglers were caught with the guide about a month after its publication. “Incidents of thefts for personal consumption have risen in prominence in the last decade,” said Broughton. “And it’s true: most of those caught for this crime have been people of Eastern European origin from countries where there is a culture of fishing for food.”

Whether or not Broughton’s opinion is correct (neither the police nor the Environment Agency tracks the ethnicities of those caught stealing carp), in 2011 the Angling Trust hired Radoslaw Papiewski, a Polish fisherman, to run a project that aims to educate migrant anglers about U.K. fishing culture. Nevertheless, Papiewski believes that the threat immigrants pose to England’s prize carp has been exaggerated. “Carp is a good food source in Europe, but it’s usually farmed for specific food purposes, and I doubt that many people would like to eat anything from the commercial fishery,” he says. “There is also a misunderstanding of the size of the fish we eat. Big fish are fatty and have old meat, which tastes unpleasant. In Europe we generally don’t eat a carp that weighs more than eight pounds. Some of these stories are simply made up and escalate from angler to angler.”

When I visited Mike Bampton at Wasing, he told me that he had recently noticed a curious trend. “When the Parrot isn’t caught for a month or so, people begin to panic,” he said. “They worry that he’s died or been stolen. I’ve even had people saying to me they’re thinking of joining a new ticket because they think the Parrot is gone. Then, sure enough, a week later he’s caught and they’re all happy again.

“I’m not like that,” he told me. “I fish for the love of carp. I don’t fish because I just want to catch the largest one.”

Bampton’s uncorrupted love of carp was rewarded in late 2014, when, after fishing through the night, he felt something take his bait. He stood up and looked into the water. “It’s only then I realized it was the Parrot,” he recalled. “You always think in the back of your mind that it might be, but when it finally is . . . well, the bulk and the tail. It’s huge.”

The Parrot’s weight — equivalent to that of a ten-year-old boy — affords him considerable strength. After the fish took the bait, he dragged Bampton’s rowboat around the lake for close to an hour. Once the fish tired, Bampton and two friends were able to lug him from the water, slop him into a sling, and lay him on a mat to keep him safe from harm. “Everyone told me about the snout,” Bampton said. “But it wasn’t till I first saw him on the bank . . . well, it’s a character fish, isn’t it? And the rest is so pretty. The scales. The shape. He’s not dumpy. He doesn’t have a belly. The weight is evenly distributed. And he’s so long. You can’t imagine a fish getting that large.” Bampton treated the Parrot’s fresh wound with antiseptic, took a photograph, and then rushed him back to the water. “It took me a week to recover from the encounter,” he said, “to realize just what I’d achieved.”

It’s that sense of achievement, so closely tied to the size of the catch, that keeps both the angling industry and its criminal shadow alive. Carp theft may be on the rise, but it’s not the only reason that a fish goes missing. Sometimes, after a three-day stretch quivering under a bivouac, when no fish has bitten for hours, it’s tempting to blame a spectral thief who empties the lake in the middle of the night. In those moments, the frustrated mind turns not to the one that got away but to the one that perhaps is no longer there.

As the sky, a unanimous shade of English gray, began to darken over the ancient Wasing Estate, Bampton surveyed his lake, which he so dutifully and so earnestly protects. The few anglers within his view sat on the shore higgledy-piggledy, staring at the motionless water. Twenty yards away, a barge carved soundlessly along the adjacent river, which is open to the public.

“That canal gets busy in the summer,” Bampton announced forebodingly. “Makes me nervous.”

is a British journalist and the author of Death by Video Game (Melville House).

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December 2016

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