Steve Partner: So who’s the best... Match or speci?

Last week Terry Hearn made headlines after landing the ‘Burghfield Common’. But where, asks Steve Partner, do carpers sit in the hierarchy of anglers?

The late, great Ivan Marks had perhaps the most memorable way of categorising the ability of specific anglers.

“Those that can, match fish,” he told me during an interview I conducted with him just months before his death in 2004. “Those that can’t, call themselves specimen-hunters, carpers or pike anglers. Either way,” he concluded with a theatrical wink, “it’s just a name that tries to hide the fact they can’t fish.”

In many ways it was typical Ivan – simple, sweeping and, given it was the view of the finest matchman of his generation, a mile away from being objective. But his tongue was only partly planted in his cheek when he said it. Generally speaking, he meant it.

I was reminded of Ivan’s comments last week when the sport unified to heap universal praise on Terry Hearn, who landed a target fish a year after beginning his campaign. That’s right, I said a year.

Notwithstanding Terry’s ability as an angler – something which, given his track record, is not in question – it speaks volumes that someone who has taken 365 days to catch a particular carp should be worthy of such applause. But that’s what many carpers do. They set their stall out for a specific fish and don’t rest until they get it. Days, weeks, months – even years – can pass before that goal is achieved, if indeed it ever is.

Success in this world isn’t judged on the means of getting there, just the end result.

You have to ask, though, when does fishing becoming camping and then camping become trapping? Is merely boring a fish into submission really a measure of angling ability? Doesn’t time then become a greater weapon in the angler’s armoury than any measure of skill?

Maybe, though, we should be looking at this differently.

Maybe we should see the skill in targeting an individual fish, often on vast venues 100 or so acres in size, as the ultimate angling challenge. Is success, therefore, necessarily a true measure of angling talent?

Maybe the willingness to spend so much time on the bank is not just a perverse form of endurance, but instead an admirable display of determination and willpower. How you view it depends on which side of the fence you sit.

Of course, this style of fishing is not exclusive to a select band of carp anglers. Numerous specimen-hunters have built very impressive personal best lists with little more than a mix of access to the right venues, a dollop of time and an unswerving mentality that allows them to stay put until they catch their desired species. The end result is a catalogue of oversized specimens that most anglers can only dream of.

Statistics, though, can often mask the truth, and measuring someone on their catches alone can be hugely misleading.

But, just as in carp fishing, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some very good big-fish anglers in this country. They may be few and far between, but the genuine coarse fishing all-rounder does still exist.

Was Ivan Marks wrong, then? Are the carpers and big-fish lads on the same level as match anglers?

The two sides of the sport are so far apart that comparisons are difficult. The match angler draws rather than picks his peg. He has a set amount of time, within a laid-down set of rules, to accrue his weight. And he is happier catching 25 one-pound carp than he is a single 20-pounder. Overall weight takes precedence over an individual specimen.

What can be done with matchmen that’s impossible to do with big-fish anglers is properly measure success. Competition angling requires a winner and although it’s possible, even at the highest level, to be lucky by drawing the right peg, consistent success requires genuine ability.

It is widely accepted, for example, that Alan Scotthorne is one of the greatest match anglers on the planet because he has won the World Championships five times.

It is easy to recognise which competition anglers are any good by the number of matches they win. But that can’t be said of carpers or big-fish men. Is catching a British record the ultimate achievement? Not really, because that can happen by complete chance. What about competitions like the Drennan Cup, designed to recognise the country’s finest specimen-hunter?

This can never be a definitive measure of ability because not every big-fish angler enters, and the voting system – the champion is picked by previous winners only – could be considered elitist.

So, ultimately, pb lists are the sole tangible way of assessing prowess. And, for reasons already discussed, these can never be a true yardstick.

Despite the near impossibility of establishing which type of angler is best, that hasn’t stopped people trying. As far back as 1953, legendary big-fish man Dick Walker was pitched against the leading matchman of the day, Tom Sails, an exercise repeated nearly 40 years later when John Wilson took on then England manager Dick Clegg. The big-fish men won both times.

But did either of these contests really provide conclusive proof? Hardly.

What’s clear is that in every branch of the sport there are stars, individuals who rise above their peers through a mix of hard work, dedication and genuine talent. But fishing is so diverse that comparisons are almost futile.

Ivan Marks reckoned he knew who made the best anglers.

But, as I suspected at the time, making mischief was his primary goal.