In August 2004 I caught a 44lb carp, the same weight as Richard Walker’s record breaking common back in 1952. He named his fish Ravioli but thankfully someone else decided Clarissa was more flattering. My Clarissa was a common too, but I’m not a carp fisherman, I was after catfish.
Waveney Valley Lakes in Norfolk, a nature reserve and fishery endorsed by the late, great (albeit climate change naysayer) David Bellamy, is a beautiful place to be let alone fish. I booked a week on Marsh Lake, with a view to catch a catfish, beguiled by their uncomely strangeness and brute fighting strength, not to mention their size. Those big slimy tadpoles go to 65lb at Waveney Valley. I couldn’t even begin to imagine the sort of fight a fish of those proportions would give so I hoped I’d start off small and work my way up.
There was only me and one other fishing Marsh Lake, an unusual looking, elderly gentleman with more than a whiff of Catweazle about him. He had coarse grey hair to his shoulders, wore galoshes and an old waxed cagoule and wouldn’t have looked out of place on Ahab’s Pequod. He had the perplexing habit of exclaiming “who me?”whenever I asked him a question when more often than not it was just me and him talking. I had to suppress the urge to shout “WHO ELSE FOR CHRISSAKE!” a lot during our chats. Despite his archaic appearance, his tackle was top draw, the very latest in carp fishing innovation, and his set up looked like a feature spread for Carp World. He was very proud of it and took great pleasure in cocking a sneer at my mishmash of assorted rods, reels and threadbare brolly camp.
When I hooked my Clarissa her initial run were so powerful that before I could slow her she tore off parallel with the near bank straight through all of Catweazle’s three lines. The bite alarm’s catawaulling and light show alone could have filled an Ibiza dance floor. I felt very guilty at the time, more for the fish than for him but miraculously when I netted her the only terminal tackle visible was mine. He didn’t seen perturbed, however, and was gracious and congratulatory. “That’s the biggest carp in the lake,” he said, quietly. I wasn’t surprised, she was massive, the biggest freshwater fish I’d ever seen. Although saying that I had once caught a pike of similar rare proportions, but the two events couldn’t have been more different.
Being in the presence of Clarissa was a joy, made more special by a fine, late summer morning with sunlight playing on her doubloon-like scales, whereas my pike was caught from a huge pit in the Lee Valley on a frigid, overcast December day and was a mottled, deformed leviathan so battle scarred she looked like she’d been swimming around since the Cretaceous. And to make her appearance all the more frightening, her entire left eye and part of her head was engulfed in an ugly tumorous growth of a ghastly mottled grey/red that looked like her brain was seeping through her eye socket. That December day was a fitting backdrop as it felt almost apocalyptic. I encountered no one else during that session, saw no one, spoke to no one. It was if the world had ended, and all that survived was me and the monster.
It all started with the rat. With a faint rustle, he popped out from the reeds only to immediately spin round and dive back in when he saw me. Next thing there was a plop as he’d apparently opted to travel by water rather than land. As he swam from left to right in the margins creating a little bow wave, a huge dark torpedo shape emerged from nowhere, tracking his progress. It hung motionless below the rat, which appeared oblivious to the threat. I braced myself for the strike, but it never came and the torpedo slid back into the shadows.
It was an eerie sight, that pike. With trembling fingers I gently reeled in my popped up mackerel tail to within three metres of the bank, and waited.
Five minutes later I was staring at a stygian creature on my unhooking mat, laying there in all her deformed glory. She had barely struggled during the fight and came to the net like a wet blanket.
I tried to weigh her with freezing, shaking hands but my scales only went up to 25lb and, with a crash and a rattle, they bottomed-out. At a guess I’d say she was well over 28lb but she could have been a thirty. When I returned her she loitered menacingly in the margins for a moment before slowly vanishing. I had no desire to fish on, because of the dreadful prospect of hooking her again. That was the one and only time I fished the pit with the Frankenpike.
I did manage to catch a catfish at Waveney Valley, and as they usually do it came at night. I didn’t hear or register the bite alarm initially as I was sat up in my brolly camp, struggling to breathe, suffering a hay fever induced asthma attack. They’d been coming on and off for about three days, depriving me of sleep, energy and enthusiasm. As I played the fish, in the dead of night with rattling lungs and crumpled under-crackers, the shocking, lunging power of catfish became all too apparent. Sapped of strength and vital motor skills, I tottered around the swim totally befuddled, head-torch on flash, trying to take control of a fight that was all too one-sided. I could feel the line grate ominously on the lip of a gravelly drop-off about eight metres out and gritted my teeth in anticipation of a break-off. I was still struggling to gain line when, to my tremendous relief, the cat seemed to turn-tail and head straight at me. After thrashing about in the margins for a few seconds, a commotion that drew the attention of Catweazle, the fish was on the bank. “Look at you covered in slime, they stink too don’t they?” This was his commentary on my slithery attempts at weighing my very first catfish, which was a muscular 25lb. In the end I was glad that all I was wearing from the waist down was underpants. For one it makes the photos more of a talking point, and for two it’s easier to wash catfish gunk from bare legs rather than fishing strides.
Out of all these angling escapades I think the capture of my Clarissa was the most special. From the minute the bite alarm announced her presence on that beautiful late summer morning to the bitter sweet moment I watched her great, golden shoulders slide back into the pellucid depths of Marsh Lake, I knew I’d been in the company of one of nature’s rarities, a real gem.