I had been in soulful mood, worrying about the state of our countryside, about foot and mouth disease and the lack of a suitable water for a traditional start to the coarse season with a few brothers of the angle. With only a few weeks to go, the little pond I had booked in Bedfordshire, filled to the brim with small tench and proper wild carp, was still under a haze of smoke from burning sheep carcasses and every access was closed.
"And let me tell you another thing," I slurred, warming to the task. "Crucians! Crucians, for goodness’ sake. Where have all the crucians gone?"
I used to love fishing for crucians when I was little, watching the orange tip of a float dithering around frustratingly. In those days a really good fish weighed less than a bag of sugar, but the charm of a fat crucian, waggling its pectoral fins spastically at the end of the fight, invariably brought a smile to my face. Sadly, they just can’t compete with the introduction of stocked carp nowadays and I’m pretty sure that many of the larger specimens pictured in the angling press are actually ‘goldfish’ hybrids. I know full well that I can go up the road and catch commercial carp from industrial pools until my arm aches, but they just doesn’t fry my onions anymore. I seek solace in more ancient surroundings.
My friend Adrian Brown, sat back in his chair with the look of general practitioner and said: "I might be able to help you there." With a misty look in his eye, he explained that his family owned an estate, a sporting estate, no less, with lakes of such beauty that even the most calloused angler would fall under their spell.
Better still, he said, the lakes had once been famous for their coarse fishing, especially for crucian carp, and rumour had it that they grew to very good size, although nobody had fished them for quite some time.
"Perhaps", he said, "I might be able to organise a day for you." In all my angling days, I can’t remember a more heartening suggestion, but unfortunately there was also sorrow in his tale. The estate was soon to be sold, for reasons too privately sad to convey in public, but suffice it to say that Adrian was inconsolable.
A few days later and true to his word, Adrian rang to ask if I might like to come and have a look around, so that if we wanted to fish on June 16th, he would offer an invitation.
There are few events where nature conspires with human kind to create perfect settings, but the Merrygold lakes are one of them. Three lakes, totalling some twenty acres, had been created in a feat of extravagant Victorian endeavour. Far away from the sound of road traffic, the first lake harboured great beds of water lilies, on one side an elegant white swimming house, with steps into the water, at the other end fed by a stream that had been diverted through a giant sculpture from white marble, fashioned into the shape of a dolphin’s head.
The second, twelve acres or so, much larger and heavily wooded was connected by a stone bridge and waterfall. Much of the bankside was steep and densely populated with mixed rhododedrons, exotic trees and deciduous woodland, making those parts unfishable. This was a point which had not been lost to its’ creator, who had thoughtfully built a splendid stone boat house, complete with summer room (so that the ladies of the house might have tea after an exhausting day’s punting). In it’s centre stood an imposing stone carving of the water god Neptune and the entire underwater perimeter, to a depth of ten feet on all sides had been paved with cobble stones. And at the far end, in glorious solitude, lay the ‘trout lake’, in itself a gorgeous water, but combined with the entirety of the place, a breathless experience.
As I walked with Adrian, he told me of his childhood, the history of the estate and his sorrow to know that it would no longer be part of his life. I felt very deeply for him, but in a terribly selfish way that I’m sure he will understand, I was also thrilled to know that I might cast a line very soon. The surface of the lakes were liberally spotted with the bubbles of feeding fish.
The next few days were spent in planning. I phoned a select band of angling friends, all of whom were suffering the prospect of a foot and mouth-affected start to the season. I explained that no one knew the full potential of the water, but that there were carp, tench, perch, roach, rudd and crucians.
Interestingly, the first question from almost all of them was: "What does it look like?"
To which I replied with a wry smile: "You won’t be disappointed."
The one notable exception was Peter Wheat, a great teddy-bear of a man who’s angling exploits in books, articles and letters over the last few decades have been the source of tremendous pleasure to countless anglers.
"Did you say crucians?" He said in his gentle Dorset burr. "I haven’t caught a two pound crucian since 1978. Unfortunately, I can’t come with you, but do let me know how you get on." If only he had known.
On the day of our first encounter with the Merrygold fish, we set up at dawn in a deluge, with strong cold winds and rain pelting across the lake, but we were in good heart, delighted to coarse fishing again. Peacock quills and wagglers sat upright bobbing against the waves, anchored to large worms, corn and gentles. Rain found its way down my neck, into my cuffs and most irritatingly, trickling down the back of my chair and soaking the seat of my trousers, because I had forgotten my umbrella.
Hours past and our baits remained absolutely untouched. On either side, fellow anglers, drier than I, gave each other a shrug and a shake of their heads. Across on the other bank, I could see that Kelvin was hunched under his hat, happy but fishless like myself.
Then all of a sudden, with no hint of reason, my float sank. I stared at the empty space, previously occupied by an orange tip, until rusty reflexes shook me out of my stupor long enough to pick up the rod and miraculously, the cane bowed to a nodding, deep fighting fish. Crucians don’t run hard, nor do they jump or make any other undue fuss, but the appearance on the surface of a fat fish, gold like a pat of butter brought a round of applause to herald the first fish of the season and I was delighted to see an old friend on the bank once again. Anglers sat more upright, their eyes acutely focussed, no longer thinking of brewing a cup of tea.
And one by one, the floats began to dither and dance around, sometimes sinking away as every one us hooked fish. Big crucians, up to two and half pounds, tench to four, a mirror carp of fourteen pounds (alarming its captor who was fishing with a centre pin and four pound line), dozens of fast commons, bristling perch and wild carp, the best of eight pounds, caught on a floating crust. It was amazing fishing. One moment we had been wondering if there were any fish left in the lake, the next, we could hardly get the bait in fast enough. More than once, three or four of us were playing fish shoulder to shoulder, all at the same time.
I have been told that crucians tend not to feed in daylight and I’m sure that, as a general rule of thumb, they are better sought at night. But that day, in the pouring rain, they were in a mood of outright frenzy. To such an extent, I now regret, that I actually stopped fishing because my hunger had been sated.
Readers of my previous articles will realise that I am not especially impressed with weights and measures, taking my pleasure from the experience more than the size of the fish I catch. But on this day, we caught so many crucian carp over the magical two pound mark, that we failed to keep count.
But what of Peter Wheat? Ah, now therein lies a tale. He has his own story of Merrygold crucians, which he visited a week or so later and it is only fair that he should tell it himself one day.
The estate has now past into the hands of a new owner, so unfortunately I have no idea if we will ever be allowed to fish the lakes again. As I write, I have the draft of a letter on one side, asking if a small band of merry anglers might be granted permission to catch a crucian or two. But I doubt we will be allowed. I mean, if you owned such a place, would you?