Steve Partner: Which class of carper are you then?

The death of Benson has split carp fishing. Steve Partner looks at why this branch of angling is at war with itself...

You might think the only snobbery that exists in fishing is between game anglers and the rest of us. Not so. A branch of coarse angling is also turning into a class-fuelled battleground and the split is widening. Carp anglers, it seems, are at war with each other.

On one side sit the traditionalists, men who believe the only fish worth catching are those with an English background. They target some of the most exclusive, limited-access, top-tier pits in the country, often putting in more days in a row than most of us fish in a year. Perceived as the elite, they belong to groups that live by a ‘British is best’ mantra, and denounce any fish they believe is not credible.

They also wear the right clothes, they use the right gear and they talk the right language. As such, they have formed a small but impenetrable clique that is populated by some of the highest-profile carpers in the country. Entry to this unofficial club is severely restricted, and outsiders are not only made unwelcome, they are patronised, belittled and generally made to feel inferior. It doesn’t strain the analogy too far to describe this group as carping’s upper class.

And then, on the other side, there’s the rest of carp fishing. These lads see their sport through very different eyes, their lack of intensity giving them an altogether different view.

They often treat their fishing as a social gathering and visit day-ticket venues where the stocking density is high. They use tackle that doesn’t always match, and think nothing of using ready-tied rigs and shop-bought bait. And – this is the bit that seems to wind up the elitists – they couldn’t care less where the fish they catch come from. Meet carp fishing’s working class.

Let’s, though, clear one thing up before we go any further. These lads might not be bothered if their quarry hasn’t been in the same venue from birth, but not for one minute does this mean they condone the illegal stocking of carp.

In an era when diseases like KHV lurk like a dark cloud, the idea of introducing fish – from this country or abroad – that don’t meet the necessary requirements is abhorrent to all right-thinking anglers. But if a fishery boss stocks a clean, safe but already big carp, these anglers find it hard to see where the issue is.

They know it won’t fight any less. They know it won’t look any less impressive in the pictures. And, crucially, they know that when they’re telling stories down the pub,  their mates won’t be asking whether the fish was stocked as a fingerling or at 20lb. These types of carper simply aren’t that fussy.

But this massive body of people came under attack again this week with the death of Benson, the ‘people’s carp’ that came to represent the average man.

She was accessible, she was attainable and she was big enough to allow anybody who could afford a day ticket the chance to gatecrash the top table. Carp of 60lb-plus shouldn’t be on the CV of the ordinary angler, but Benson made that possible.

The title, though, came at a price. Her popularity, availability and origins (many accuse the fish of being imported from abroad) meant that, in the eyes of the elitists, she symbolised all they detested in carp fishing. As much as she was feted by some, Benson was hated too.

How internet forums greeted her death was evidence of that. While many posters logged on to pay their respects, others used it as an excuse to vent their anger at greater issues, especially fishery owners who adopt a policy of stocking ready-made fish. But their condemnation didn’t just stop there – it was anglers who frequent those places that bore the brunt of the verbal assault too.

The language was so extreme (one poster on one site said of Benson ‘it was a wrong ’un. Good f*****g riddance’, while another claimed the fish was ‘a disgrace…it deserved to die’) you’d have thought it belonged to a topic where a real crime was being discussed, not just a debate about the death of a fish. So emotive was the issue that all perspective has been lost and war declared.

Who, then, has called it right – carping’s upper or working class?

What those at the top end fail to accept is that not everybody wants, or has the time or money, to target huge individual fish in waters that often represent an inland sea. Quite apart from the fact access is either impossible or expensive, sometimes they are just too damn hard.

For most anglers time is precious and after five days at work they want to make the most of their leisure – and that means heading to a place where a bite is likely after a couple of hours and not a month. Their logic is simple: fishing is tough enough as it is, so why make it harder?

It’s why venues that offer a better than average chance of a big fish in exchange for a day ticket have become so popular. It’s also why the tackle trade sells more entry and mid-level carp gear than it does top end stuff. And it’s why those carpers that live outside Yateley or the Colne Valley couldn’t really care less about when a fish was first stocked.

There is, of course, further weight that could be added to this argument.

As we know, carp as a species are not indigenous to the UK, having been originally stocked back in the 1300s as a source of food for monks. And if history neuters the strength of that point, then what about the much heralded ‘Leney’ strain, which went into Redmire and thus became part of the fabric of carp fishing?

These fish, reared by Donald Leney at his fish farm between 1925 and 1955, aren’t English, instead coming over as fingerlings from Holland.

Let’s not forget either that moving carp from venue to venue was widespread during the 1970s and 1980s, and those that did it were lionised as liberators rather than condemned as smugglers. Several high-profile carp live in waters that differ from their birthplace.

Who is it, then, who decides when a fish has either been in the UK, or in a specific venue, long enough to be credible? Is 20 years enough, or does it need to be 30 or 40? Maybe it’s as much as 50 years – or as little as five years. The decision is too arbitrary to ever be conclusive.

Ultimately, what this entire debate boils down to is choice. If you don’t want to fish a venue that has an open to all policy and is full of ready-made, but legally-stocked, giants, then don’t go. But don’t denigrate those that do.

Angling has enough battles on its hands from external forces without certain sections of the sport committing genocide.