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John Bailey: East Anglia is still the stronghold for crucian carp

PUBLISHED: 10:39 25 February 2020 | UPDATED: 10:39 25 February 2020

The glory of Norfolk crucian carp, displayed by nationally famous fish artist David Cowdrey Picture: John Bailey

The glory of Norfolk crucian carp, displayed by nationally famous fish artist David Cowdrey Picture: John Bailey

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I know it is still just winter, but the snowdrops have long been out and all our thoughts are turning to the spring, summer and the joys of fishing in shirt sleeves.

Warm weather in mind, I am currently researching crucian carp venues outside my usual East Anglian manor. I can't tell you why I am doing this, though some of you will guess, and I am finding it hard.

My brief is to find a picture perfect, time lost pool, covered in lilies and shrouded by graceful willows, where the crucians will roll on the sun-kissed water, round and golden as sovereigns. And, of course, as I have said, this Utopia will be in Shropshire, Somerset, the Cotswolds or anywhere Avalon sounding in the distant west. My phone has been red hot this week gone and I have heard of whispers and suspicions and possibilities, but the fact remains East Anglia is, and always has been, the crucian stronghold of England.

Of course, there is Marsh Farm down in Surrey but that smacks of commuter belt not Constable and some of the Greater London pits hold monsters, but the drone of the M4 is hardly the soundtrack of reed warblers. Yes. I am struggling.

And, as we'd all admit, even Norfolk and Suffolk crucians aren't what they used to be. If we could magic carpet back to 1960, we'd be able to catch them all along that geological feature known as the Cromer Ridge. Beeston Regis, Weybourne, Bodham, Letheringsett, all the village ponds of that time held crucians aplenty. In short pant days, I once caught a hatful of the little golden beauties in the garden pond at Saxlingham Rectory. There were scores of crucian puddles down towards Reepham, notably at Heydon and especially in view of Salle church. And by the time I could drive, and got myself Watton way, crucians were everywhere, it seemed. Saham Toney mere had to be crucian heaven. They were so prolific there you could catch them wafting a landing net through the reed margins and feel like Captain Birdseye himself.

Progress has meant that even here in the crucian castle that is our region, times are hard. The marl pits and horse ponds that were the traditional homes of the crucian have been filled in, become polluted or have simply silted into mushy boglands. Where crucians have lingered, hybridisation with goldfish has messed up the DNA irreversibly. The blanket stocking with pig-like mirror carp has pushed many crucians into extinction and predation has done for much of the rest (crucians, it would appear, are easy meat for Mr Otter).

The fact that it is not easy to find crucians west of Lincolnshire or south of Suffolk might suggest a solution to whether the species is native to England or not. It is a fact, sort of, that burbot, silver bream, ruffe and crucians have these past 200 years been largely found in East Anglia and its close environs. This might be because 10,000 or so years ago we were joined to the continent by a land bridge and the fish species over there found a footfall here in the east. After the sea's inundation, these four species perhaps lingered on hereabouts without doing much in the way of extending their range. Perhaps more convincing is the record of crucian bones being found in Norfolk Iron Age camp fire remains, though I can't find my reference for this to save my life at present. There is a more reliable mention of crucian bones being found amongst Roman remains, if that helps us. However, the counter argument that crucians were not indigenous but imported is also strong. Certainly, none of the early fishing and fish naturalist writers mentions crucians at all. This might mean that there were no English crucians in the 1600s or that these authors did not get up to Norfolk much.

The question of crucians' historic roots is perhaps easier to answer than where to catch them today, or how to catch them once found, come to that. As I have written before, Dr Carl Sayer, ably assisted by Bernard Cooper and the University College London team, has done wonders in restoring old ponds around Norfolk and restocking them with the genuine crucian stock. The Angling Trust has mounted a similar, more national campaign and the signs are brighter for these super little fish than they have been since the 1990s. I say "little fish" and that is not fair. They grow to four pounds, a two-pounder looks a whopper and even a pounder is awesomely impressive. But how do you catch them? Me? I'm a relative novice and I've only fished for them for 60 years. The late Bernie Neave was the maestro and Norfolk legend Chris Turnbull is the modern master. This story about sums me up.

A couple of years back I witnessed a stunningly beautiful farm pond netted. I have never seen so many crucians, they were like golden confetti littering the meshes. A few fish were taken away but thousands were returned along with some real belters. I gave the pond time to settle down and one idyllic evening I settled in the rushes there, rod at the ready. It was one of those milky warm evenings you never forget. The distant whisper of the North Sea, the shriek of the swifts over the placid water and everything wonderful about Norfolk that you can think of. I didn't get a bite. I didn't get a bite the next six, consecutive evenings. I've never had a bite there and, asking around, I've never heard of any angler who has.

So, even when I do locate a magical crucian water in deepest, mystical Shropshire, we'll never blooming catch one.


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