Last week the country's most famous carp died in the middle of the biggest media frenzy to hit the sport for years.
Angling Times' Steve Partner headed to Bluebell Lakes to meet it's boss, Tony Bridgefoot...
In between Sky News, Radio 2 and the local BBC film crew, I finally get to sit down with Tony Bridgefoot.
Yesterday, before news broke of the death of the fishery’s most famous resident, a common carp known as Benson, no-one beyond a few paying customers had wanted to know him. But today is different. Today the country’s media has descended upon the complex in Northamptonshire and Angling Times has to wait its turn.
Good-looking women with expensive raincoats and even more expensive haircuts flit around the lakes probably wondering how a glamorous career in TV has landed them covering a story about a dead carp, while Oxford graduate-types from the Beeb take impressive-sized mics, but ask less impressive questions, to anyone with a rod in their hand.
It’s fair to say, Bluebell Lakes has never seen a day like it.
Fuelled by front page headlines in such esteemed national titles as the Times, and sniffing skulduggery in the shape of untreated tiger nuts, TV crews from far and wide made a bee-line to cover a story about the passing of a large carp called Benson. But, of course, this was no ordinary carp.
Ever since it first made headlines as a 40-pounder back in 1998, the giant not only went on to become one of the biggest, but also the most well-known, fish in the country. And at the core of its popularity was the fact that anyone, for the price of a day-ticket, could have a go at catching it. There are no expensive syndicates, no waiting lists and no cliques. Benson, quite rightly, became known as the ‘fish of the people.’
Its reputation wasn’t completely without blemish, though. Critics questioned its authenticity and controversy followed celebration with every capture.
But beyond all the words, it was, quite simply, Tony Bridgefoot’s most valuable asset. Conservatively, that single fish made him £20,000 a year in day-ticket sales, and he admits much of the success of the fishery was down to his most well-known occupant. So losing his cash cow together with another lump earlier in the year called The Creature has hit him hard. The loss though, is clearly greater than merely a financial one.
“Benson was nearly a family member and I was privileged to have her. The profile she gave the fishery was unbelievable, and much of what I have,” he said, gesturing to the lodge we sat in, “is down to that fish.
“What did Benson generate? I don’t know, but it was a fabulous amount of money. Was it £20,000 a year? Possibly. People would come and just want to fish the lake it was in. They weren’t bothered about catching, just being on the venue.
“Anglers loved her because they felt they knew her. There was no elitism around the fish. You can’t become familiar with something you can’t target, and Benson was here for anyone who wanted to have a go.”
That philosophy the one that welcomes any angler, regardless of ability, to come to the fishery is something that lies at the core of why Bluebell Lakes, and its residents like Benson, have become so popular. Much of modern carp fishing is blighted by cliques and snobbery, with anything beyond a handful of supposedly ‘home grown’ fish being perceived by a vociferous minority to be lacking in credibility. And Benson was close to being top of that list.
“The fish was stocked in 1994 at 22lb and it grew from there,” explained Tony. “Do I call that instant success? No. I don’t know why the fishery has come under such venomous attacks concerning the origin of my fish. I never set it up to upset the likes of the ECHO (English Carp Heritage
Organisation), and buying stock at low weights and then growing them on is not an instant big-fish policy.
“Strictly speaking, no carp is indigenous to this country, and we’ve moved a long way from the days of Walker catching a 44-pounder from a muddy puddle in Herefordshire.
“In the early days the criticism hurt. I took it personally. But all it did was reinforce my policy of wanting to create the people’s fishery. I’ve realised that no matter what I do I’ll get stick from some quarters, but
I’ve also learnt in the last 20 years that I won’t change my train of thought.”
And that train of thought, the big-fish-for-all mentality, is one he’s clearly keen to emphasise. It might sound simple, but Bluebell has created a very successful niche for itself in an era where syndicates and closed shops dominate.
“I’ve made big fish accessible to everybody. If people pay their money, my attitude is that if they stick to the rules, they can fish. I’ve always disliked closed syndicates.
“My real buzz comes when customers catch big carp. Benson gave 63 people a huge high, with hundreds taking pbs and thousands more given access to specimens on the lakes. I started a big-fish revolution. Anglers wanted excitement and I provided it.”
Of course, many now will begin to speculate on where Tony goes next.
Bluebell has built its reputation on monsters, and with Benson and The Creature - a carp that reached a peak at a record-threatening 64lb 2oz now dead, there’s a rather large hole. Could he be tempted to fill it, regardless of the consequences?
“I’ve already been offered a fish in excess of 35kg, but I said no. In the early days I was green and naïve, but I’ve wised up now. However, I have to consider where I go next.
“I have got fish to 50lb in here and my customer base is happy with that. In fact, the only person who isn’t very happy is me! I’m in the business of supplying the biggest fish I can and I believe I should be able to offer a 60-pounder. If a clean, big carp were available I would have to give it some serious thought and I wouldn’t be swayed by purists not to stock it. I base my needs as a businessman and what my customers want.”
Another question mark that hangs over the death of Benson is the cause.
Early reports suggested foul play, with unsoaked tiger nuts found in the vicinity of the body. The national media, naturally, jumped all over the suggestion, their need for the salacious the key factor in the unprecedented focus on what is, essentially, a dead fish. Few, unsurprisingly, decided to dwell on the frequency of capture or the age, two more likely causes of its downfall. Tony remains non-committal.
“Facts are facts,” he said. “Untreated nuts were found on the lake and we all know how dangerous they can be. I was given a name, but I’m not going to do anything with it because I don’t want a witch hunt. The fish is dead and nothing can change that.”
Tony Bridgefoot has been at Bluebell Lakes since 1994, turning the place into one of the most well known and popular fisheries in the country. It’s hard work he’s up at 6am and doesn’t finish until 10pm during the summer and at 53 it would be understandable if he wanted to get off the rollercoaster. But you sense a passion, a way of life, that would be impossible to replace.
“Not a day goes by without an angler telling me owning a fishery is the dream job. The reality is worlds apart and the expectations huge.
“I’ve grown to have a love/hate relationship with the place. When a grieving widow rings up and asks if she can spread her late husband’s ashes around the lakes, you don’t walk away easily. I don’t feel like the owner, more the custodian.
“But when someone misbehaves, you do question it. Have I felt like selling up? On bad days, yes I have.”
Tony’s time, on this most remarkable of days, is precious and the BBC is waiting impatiently. His face is a mix of adrenalin-driven excitement and complete befuddlement.
“Never in a million years did I expect this kind of attention,” he said, as we shook hands. “Benson on the cover of the Times? It’s going to take a lot to top that!”
The people’s carp may be dead, but the people’s fishery survives. And with Tony Bridgefoot at the helm you can’t help but suspect it won’t be the last time that Bluebell Lakes makes front page news.
Tony Bridgefoot's views on...
What will happen to Benson now: “I plan to case her with The Creature and set them up in the lodge.”
The death of The Creature: “I was equally disappointed to lose her. I never thought Benson would do the record, but I hoped The Creature might. I believed that in 2010 I’d have the biggest fish in the country.”
What would have happened if either fish had broken the British record: “All hell would have broken loose! The split in carp fishing would never have healed. There would have been Bluebell anglers and other anglers.”
Plans at the fishery for the next 12 months: “I’ve got a lot of work to do to make sure the big carp on the fishery get priority. I’ve got plans to net Kingfisher and Swan in the winter to just leave the big carp in there because I want them to gain weight.”
Modern anglers: “All the technology is getting in the way of the adventure.
It makes me laugh that people turn up head to toe in camo gear ¬ then park a huge white van behind their peg.”
The media attention: “It started at 7.30am with the World Service and ended with Canadian TV at 7.30pm. Bluebell brought the mainstream media into fishing and that has to be good. No other carp has made the front the Times.”
Biggest frustration: “A few narrow-minded people are intent on splitting angling and that bugs me. If a bloke works in a mundane job all he wants to do is catch fish. He’s not bothered about the politics or where it came from.”
His supporters: “When I’ve had time to reflect, away from the mics and the cameras, I would like to thank all the anglers, both syndicate and day ticket, who have supported me following the death of my two big fish. Without you, there would have been no Benson or Bluebell Lakes.”