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My first Ashlea Pool carp, and the day that I saw the monster.
Mike Mintram concludes his recollections of the very early days on one of carp fishing’s most famous waters with the account of how he landed his first fish from the lake, and the day that he spotted a fish way bigger than anything else he had ever seen.

Father suddenly decided that he and I would have a couple of days at Ashlea Pool midweek. It was October. Arriving late afternoon in our Morris Traveler, we unloaded and setup two umbrellas and what carp anglers now would disparagingly call our “supermarket” bedchairs. These were luxury to us then: now, night anglers enjoy the equivalent of a three-foot divan!
For some reason that escapes me, we were not night fishing, so after a meal and brew we settled down to sleep. At first light, Dad spotted a fish under some lilies close to the bank. He cast a floating crust several feet in front of it. Ten minutes later it took it.
I don’t recall the fight was spectacular. It dived about in the lilies but eventually he got in close and I netted it. The fish, a mirror, weighed just 4oz short of 20lb. I photographed the second fish we had caught during our short time fishing Ashlea.
I believe that was our last trip to the lake that season, although we made many more to undertake the remedial work throughout that winter. What a task it was! I don’t think modern carp anglers have any concept of how severe winters were. Snow was the norm. On one occasion, we were fog bound for days, but such was our dedication and enthusiasm, each weekend found Dad, John, myself and occasionally Ken and Jim heading off to Gloucestershire.
John never let us down, despite having to travel from his job in London by train to our house on a Friday evening through the rush-hour, carrying all his equipment. His fervour never diminished.
Our first task was to make one of the sheds that Hubert had originally intended to use for cattle into a comfortable billet where we could eat and sleep. The hut, as we called it, was actually quite a decent building made of concrete blocks with a corrugated iron roof, so we had a good base to start from.
Fortunately, Hubert’s original plan of cattle keeping had come to naught. None of us fancied sharing the accommodation with a herd of cows anyway!
Dad bought a load of timber and lined the internal walls and ceiling to make it warm and draught-proof. We put in a partition wall and door, and even had a carpet on the floor. Such luxury, and to make it feel more homely, we fitted some kitchen cupboards.
Having scoured the local papers, we managed to buy a Calor gas cooler and a table and chairs. The cooker was a masterstroke, with an oven, grill and four hobs. You could have cooked a Sunday lunch with ease on it.
The only facilities that we lacked were electricity, running water and a toilet. Undeterred, we acquired some Tilley lamps that ran on paraffin. Water was more difficult. We had to bring our own supplies in giant containers. All in all, we were very comfortable, just as well considering how hard we worked throughout that winter.
John, ever enthusiastic, had designed and built a reed cutter and drag at work from pieces of angle iron. It was a massive thing, the like of which I have never seen since. It had to be made in sections so that he could transport it on the train. We often wondered what his fellow passengers made of it.
Hubert had an old tractor that hadn’t worked in years. Dad, being mechanically minded, soon had it running again. It proved an invaluable work horse that winter. Once hooked to John’s reed cutter by a steel hawser, it did sterling work. It took two of us riding on the cutter to dig it into the reeds. Then the tractor, pulling it across the lake, cut great swathes as it went. After the best part of two months, we had cleared a huge area, dragging out enormous chunks of reeds and debris and spreading them on the banks.
We decided to make an island by towing clumps of reeds into the center of the lake and piling heap upon heap until the desired effect had been achieved. The idea was that we would be able to wade out to this island to stalk fish.
We also repaired the causeway that ran along the far side of the lake and had two outlets, the lake being stream-fed by the river Churn. Over the years, the causeway had eroded, so we made two concrete spillways, using railway sleepers from the derelict local station.
The railway had previously run alongside the lake before becoming another victim of Dr Beeching’s cut backs in 1963. There was much evidence of it. The platforms were intact and a surfeit of useful building materials in the form of sleepers and bricks remained, which were soon put to good use. Using the tractor, we dragged them across the spillways to make bridges and shore up the eroded banks, creating a pleasant walkway on either side and much improving the environment. I can remember that particular job being a hell of a lot of hard work, taking weeks to accomplish.
By June 1966 we had a very comfortable and well organized fishery. We were still seeing big carp, certainly 30-pounders, and had done so throughout the close season. As June 16th approached, we were anticipating the season with much pleasure. Having travelled to and fro every weekend through terrible weather and worked like slaves, we felt we deserved some decent fishing and hoped to reap the fruits of our labours.
Father, John and myself had planned to spend the first few days of the season there. The build-up to that first trip, organizing baits and sorting gear only added to our excitement. We impatiently awaited John’s arrival by train from London and, gear stowed, we set off in high spirits. Dad could only spend the first two days fishing before returning home. Being in the middle of a major building job, he was needed on site. He intended to return towards the end of the week and collect us.
Having setup and cast out, the usual start of season scenario occurred: nothing happened! This was an anti-climax. Dad and I had baited with potatoes throughout the close season and had witnessed fish feeding eagerly in the clearing we had made.
For two days we sat, feeling decidedly pessimistic at the distinct lack of action. We almost envied Dad as he drove off home, leaving John and me behind to discuss tactics. Having walked the perimeter of the lake and seen no fish, we could only hope the situation would improve.
John had invited a friend, Dr Rex Elgood, to join us for a few days, which he did shortly after Dad left. Again nothing happened, but Dr Elgood was very impressed with the water despite having not even seen a fish.
This was to become a trait of Ashlea. The fish, for no obvious reason, just seemed to disappear without a trace. In retrospect it was apparent that they were simply not used to so much activity. They certainly wee not comfortable with people even walking around the lake and became very timid, hiding under the water cabbages as soon as they spotted any movement.
Poor Rex packed up to leave, having enjoyed his visit regardless of the lack of action, and offered John and me a lift into the village in his new Ford Granada, quite a stylish car for the time. We restocked with provisions and returned to continue our war of attrition. The lake still looked lifeless.
The next morning I rose early and walked the heavily wooded bank I was fishing to see John. In those days, the banks were quite high and a useful vantage point. As we stood chatting, we suddenly saw several large carp moving towards the shallow end. There were four or five swimming inline when suddenly two more joined the flotilla from the rear.
Almost instantaneously we realised that these last two fish were in fact just one, and it was huge. We looked at each other in amazement. I think we said “ Blimey ! “ in unison. It was so much longer than any of the others. By now they were all swimming towards the shallow end. As we watched, they vanished into the lilies. We stood and discussed the big fish, coming to the conclusion that it was certainly bigger that any previous ones we had sighted, which averaged between 18lb and 30lb. this sighting caused us a great deal of excitement and was certainly reason for a celebratory breakfast and brew-up!
After breakfast, John went off to answer the call of nature: it must have been the excitement! Without running water, this was very primitive to say the least, occurring in a scrubby patch to the side of the lake well away from everything.
Suffice to say this left me to my own devices so I ambled off across the causeway where a movement on the water in front of the new island caught my eye. The tail of a fish broke the surface and I knew instinctively that this was a carp. I hurried to my swim on the far bank where I had a stalking rod already made up with a rig, float, shot and net to hand.
I grabbed a tin of red worms. I always took these worms with me, having found them useful as stalking bait. Struggling into my waders, I sprinted around the lake to a spot where I knew I could wade out to the island. I think I shouted to John, but getting no response I quietly waded out.
I very gently placed my rod and net down and climbed onto the island, keeping my profile as low as possible, aware that the fish may be able to see me. In front of the island was a fringe on reeds we had deliberately left in place as cover. I crawled on all fours and warily peered into the water.
I froze. Lying in the clearing beyond the reeds were three carp, two about the average Ashlea size; big doubles around 18lb to low twenties, but the third was a superb specimen in a league of its own. It was so much larger than the other two and at that time I had never seen anything like it.
It must have of been all of 3ft long, very broad across the shoulders. It looked monstrous in comparison to it companions. I would imagine, even to this day, that it was the fish we had seen earlier that morning swimming up to the shallow end of the lake. I was absolutely stunned. These fish were no more than a few yards away from me just lying in the crystal-clear water.
I watched for several minutes before they moved off into the thicker lilies beyond the clearing. I can recall thing that if ever I was to have any chance of catching a fish than this was it; I must not delay. Trembling with excitement I managed to open the tin of red worms. I baited a no.2 James hook and raised the rod, I don’t know how, as I was weak with anticipation by this stage. I gently lowered the bait into the water, crouching down t watch my small porcupine float sitting on the edge of the lilies. As I waited, I could see a fish, certainly one of the smaller ones coming back into the clearing. No sooner had I spotted it than my float disappeared in a flash. I stood up and lifted the rod. There was a massive boil as the fish tore off into the thick lilies. Concurrently I saw a vast bow-wave like a trident submarine taking off across the water and assumed it was the other fish, including the huge one, bolting to the far end and vanishing into the deeper water there.
As all this commotion occurred, John had waded out to join me without me even realizing he was there. I turned round and there he was pointing to this giant bow wave crossing the lake, mouth agape. I was still struggling with the fish I had hooked as it ploughed and wallowed about in the shallows, seeming shell-shocked at being caught. I finally had it on the surface and asked john to get the net and put it in the water over the reeds.
After two or three minutes the carp submitted and floundered into the net. I thought it a twenty and John agreed, but as neither of us had ever seen a 20lb carp on the bank before, we couldn’t be certain.
We unhooked it and waded back to the bank, John carrying the rod and myself the net containing the fish. John went to get the brass spring balance from my swim and when he returned, we weighed it: 21lb 12oz after deducting a few ounces for the wet net.
We sacked it up and John went to find Hubert Perry, who we knew was staying in his old bus. He normally had his camera with him and had the foresight to point out that we needed another object in the photo frame as a size comparison, suggesting a slab of Echo margarine of all things.
I preferred a match box or a reel but no: Hubert was adamant. Echo margarine it was! We took some pictures of the fish lying on the ground, John took some of me holding it and then we returned it to the water of the causeway, watching it swim off and make for cover. Needless to say, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. I was just twenty one and had caught my first twenty-pounder.
Later in the day, John and I walked to the telephone box in the village (no mobile telephones then) to ring Dad and tell him my news. Father was very pleased and it encouraged him to hurry his job along and return to Ashlea.
For the rest of the time we were there, absolutely nothing happened. No movement, and no more sightings of fish. It was as if the carp had communicated the fate that had overtaken one of there number, and were determined to lay low until the enemy had gone. It was to become a regular occurrence at the pool.
After every catch the lake became dead for several days. It was all very frustrating. In the remaining two or three years that I was to fish Ashlea, I never recall seeing that enormous fish again. I have a vague recollection that somebody did, although now I cannot remember who it was.
In the ensuing years, some very well known anglers fished the pool. One was Jack Hilton. He spent an entire winter trying to catch a big carp. In the course of his stay, he took his small wooden punt and a net out the lake and through the net over semi comatose fish that were lying in the cold water on the bottom. He would hall them into the boat and weigh them before returning them. His actions caused quite a bit of controversy at the time. Other anglers were shocked and angry that anyone would want to do this.
His explanation was that he wanted to discover just how large the Ashlea carp were. He had fish up to 35lb I believe, but told me that one day while netting fish, he spotted ine that looked a good deal larger than any he had previously seen.
However, after throwing the net over this particular fish it put up such a fight that he was fearful of being dragged in. There was no way he could land it, so it swam off into the cover, lost to sight. Jack was convinced that the fish was at least 40lb. I believe that it was the same one that I saw off our island on the morning I caught my twenty-pounder.
If anyone asked me if I had any regrets about fishing Ashlea, I would have to say there is only one: that this massive fish was never caught on a rod and line. Had it been, it would have created a huge amount of excitement in the carp world. It would certainly have been one of the biggest fish ever taken in that era.
A word or two about the tackle we used. Our rods were all cane, the finest material in my opinion, and all mk4’s of one type or another. The one I used on the morning I caught my twenty one-pounder was a 10ft Sharpe’s impregnated split-cane carp rod. Combined with a Hardy Altex No 3 reel.
Not a lot of these reels were used in carp fishing then, but quite a few decent anglers such as Bill Keale and Alec Lewis used them to good effect. I had several. I think the line was a 12lb and the hook a James No 2.
The landing net was one that Father made himself. Having been an engineer during the war and worked for Vickers Armstrong making aircraft parts, he was especially skilled at lathe turning and milling. A landing net was an effortless piece of equipment for him to produce.
Dad and I drew the design between us. It had glass-fibre arms and the handle was a butt section from a beach caster blank. We based our design on the old James/Dick Walker landing net produced briefly in the late 1950’s and made an improved version.
I have heard various people claim over the years that they were the first to make updated versions of the James/Walker net using glass fibre. I’m not so sure. Ours was made up in 1963. I would be quite surprised if anyone made one before that.
Recently I read a piece in the angling press that Ashlea was not “a natural big fish water”. This is nonsense. I can only assume the author got this notion from the period when a lot of big fish were put into the pool after a disastrous fish kill in the early 1970’s. this occurred long after my father had given up the water and moved onto Redmire.
There is no way that Dad would have condoned restocking big fish into established waters. The original Ashlea stocking was with small fish during the 1940’s, undertaken by the well respected Surry Trout Farm owned by Don Leney, who had a branch in nearby Nailsworth. Fish from here went into Ashlea and grow naturally to whatever size they achieved. They certainly were not fed on high protein bait or fattened in any way. They merely grew in conjunction with the food chain naturally available to them in the lake. Even in those early years, the pool was capable of producing large fish. I hope I have dispelled this theory with historical fact.
So there it is: a tale of carp fishing in the 1960’s. As one angler recently informed me, I was lucky to be fishing such unspoilt waters. I can only agree. In retrospect, privileged is a more appropriate word. I was also fortunate that I had a father who was so dedicated and inspired. I often regret that I neglected to thank him properly for all he did, not just for me but also for carp fishing in general.
We had so much to learn then. Few books were available. There were no videos and little information. Now everything is packaged for convenience, information is available via the Internet and host of other resources. Somehow the allure has diminished, taking the mystery and challenge with it. Angling is in danger of becoming just another commercial past time, and the sport is the poorer for it.
Many older anglers feel that carp fishing has deteriorated, becoming too commercial with much glory-hunting and little magic. I look back on the early 1960’s with very fond memories and a sense of sadness that those times can never come again. My mind drifts back down the years, and once again I am fishing places such as Ashlea and Redmire with my friend and father.
I recently stumbled on a congratulatory letter from Dr Rex Ellgood after catching my 21lb carp. He wrote: “How I wish I had been present to witness the catch, I have never seen such a large fish on the bank”. This letter, along with much more correspondence relating to Ashlea and Redmire, I keep as a reminder of a truly magical and creative period in the history of carp fishing.
In the summer of 2000, at the kind invitation of the present syndicate leader of Ashlea, I was given the opportunity to return there after nearly 36 years and meet the current owner, Tom Groves and his wife. It was a surreal experience.
The pool has changed so much. The only thing that remained much as we had left it is our old fishing hut, and inside I discovered the old reed cutter that Hubert Perry had given Dad all those years ago.
I was offered the chance to fish the pool once more, and am very grateful. How memories flooded back at the place where so many years ago, I played a small part in carp fishing history.

 

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