Operation Freedom: Part 1
Being mobile is golden

Two years ago. Alex Norgate decided to break away from modern-day society in search of a more wholesome life. It would involve travelling, living off the land and his favourite pastime, carp fishing. Starting this week, Alex documents how and where his journey has gone and why he’s enjoying life more than ever

A divinely proportioned common
E

ver since my first visit to the French Alps over a decade ago, I swore to myself that I would one day live in such a place. Somewhere inside, I questioned how such a thing would be possible, but in hindsight I needed not answers, just the faith that my vision was already in the process of being made manifest. Many years later I would discover the delights of alpine carp fishing and have the chance to do the things that, at the time, seemed only possible in my wildest imaginings.

During the spring of 2013 an idea began forming in my mind, an idea that would allow me the opportunity to live a more wholesome life, travel and indulge in my favourite pastime, carp fishing. I had no notion of the extent to which it was possible, just a strong intuitive feeling that I must take a hold of reality’s steering wheel and guide it in the direction of my thinking. If I didn’t, then without doubt, it would slip through my fingers and into the ether like many ideas I’d conjured up over the years.

Through a stroke of luck, Caroline (my partner at the time) and I, moved into a shared house with a huge garden and driveway that would allow me the space to convert a Luton van into a camper. The whole project took a year from conception to completion. I had no experience, just the drive and belief that if I persisted, eventually something would materialise from the piles of detritus strewn around our garden. The camper alone took a solid four-months working everyday for around fourteen hours. I can’t even begin to recall the amount of times I lost my nerve while in the throws of its construction. From where I stand now, it was worth every single moment of mental agony.

On the 1st of March 2014 we set sail from Dover to Calais, one month behind schedule. I felt ecstatic as the ferry gradually glided out of the port and over the mercurial surface into the golden evening sunlight. It was the launching of Operation Freedom.

My motivation for such an adventure is not simply surmounted in one single answer. Of course the idea of a lifelong fishing trip is very alluring but that alone was not enough for me to depart from the enveloping comfort of modern day living and into the bushes. I have wanted to travel long-term for the majority of my life, but have been snared by fear one way or the other. Going off into the wilderness armed with a backpack always seemed like a great idea, but then I would counter my thinking with anxieties: what happens when I run out money? What will I do if I get sick? These seemingly rational fears were actually those of the people around me, which I unconsciously made my own.

Even up until the point of completing the van and leaving England, I had my trepidations. Of course I needn’t have been so apprehensive; trying to determine the future is fruitless after all. The more I swim with the flow, the more extraordinary life becomes. It took me a long time to observe that planning is the death of spontaneity, so now I avoid making plans altogether. That way my intuition has precedence in deciding where to go or what to do next. It has opened me up to a world of which I was previously unaware.

Another contributor to my thinking, in the years leading up to Operation Freedom, was the observation that society seemed in the midst of a crisis, not financial one, nor a political one; I would call it more of an identity crisis. On the whole, we no longer identify ourselves as part of our natural environment. This is evident in things like deforestation or in energy extraction methods such as fracking. Even our TVs hold us from the outdoors in a vegetable-like state for hours while it informs us how to think, feel and respond, something that I think we rarely consider.

My humble abode

As much as I would love to see change, I have come to accept it as a point of view. I found what Alan Watts postulates to be very insightful: “When we examine our bloodstreams under a microscope we see there’s one hell of a fight going on. All sorts of micro-organisms are chewing each other up. And if we got overly fascinated with our view of our own bloodstreams in the microscope, we should start taking sides, which would be fatal, because the health of our organism depends on the continuance of this battle. What is, in other words, conflict at one level of magnification, is harmony at a higher level. Now could it possibly be then that we, with all our problems, conflicts, neurosis, sicknesses, political outrages, wars, tortures and everything that goes on in human life are a state of conflict which can be seen in a larger perspective as a situation of harmony?”

And finally it would be not be transparent of me if I didn’t mention an experience I had surrounding ill health, as for me it is the holy grail of teachings which hugely contributed to a shift in my perspective. In the past, I endured long bouts of sickness. I would be in bed for months, barely able to crawl to the bathroom, a daily ordeal of nosebleeds, extreme pain, dizziness, vomiting. Of course I had many tests and, although my doctors tried their best, there was little they could do. After eight months of this I was at the end of my tether, my music company had come to a stand still and had stopped generating any kind of income. I had no quality of existence. When I needed fishing more than ever, I was unable to even hold a rod.

It’s when at breaking point that magic happens.

First night. No rods cast, just enjoying the atmosphere

In an act of desperation I tried a herb which I had a great deal of scepticism about. Within a matter of weeks my health improved dramatically. It is not possible to go into why and how here, but suffice to say the experience of ill health and the herb gave me vital insight and, believe it or not, I am thankful for it; without those two ingredients I very much doubt I would have been so determined to change my life.

That change bore fruit the moment we arrived in France but almost a month passed before I was able to cast my lines into a mountain-fringed pool, one I’d fished several times in the past. By which time we were surrounded by endless blue skies, serene lime greens, and all the earthly aromas associated with springtime by the lakeside. It delighted me to my very core to sit day after day marvelling at the incredible beauty. The sense of freedom was overwhelming, uplifting and essential. Having time to just exist, without any impending pressures, stresses, or necessity to be someone in the eyes of others was, and still is, undoubtedly one of the most liberating experiences of my life.

Each night, I’d stay awake into the early hours listening to the melodious nightingale and watching the surface in the moonlight for topping carp. For some reason or another they did not reveal themselves until the moon ascended above the mountains into a bright star-filled sky on the fourth night. Out amongst the shifting vapourous clouds and over the havoc of mating frogs, a distinctive weighty splash rocked the surface, shortly followed by another and another.

Enjoying the fruits of springtime

The nightingale and amorous frogs were cast into silence as the carp engaged in a display of sporadic activity. There was tension and maybe even a little expectancy. Against a star-filled sky I watched my silhouetted rod tips, encouraged in the belief that one of them would soon be arching over. I battled with the heavy sedation that precedes sleep but could not stay awake. My closed eyes flooded with revelries of imagery, which somehow synchronised with the thrashings of the carp. Before I knew it I had succumbed to the grasp of sleep.

From the depths of a wild and vivid dream I was snatched by a familiar sound. A moment approximately half-a-second passed before I was able to attribute meaning to its alarming shrill. At which point the top layer of my sleeping bag launched into the air and I hurriedly scrambled the bank to attend the spectacle. I grabbed my rod, wound down a little and leaned into the fish. It almost instantly winched me down the bank, so I loosened the clutch allowing it to have some line. The rod creaked as the line inched through the rings in a slow determined manner. I clambered into my boat and slipped out into the half-light under the inertia of a powerful carp.

As I approached the middle of the lake I could see the sky awash with millions of glimmering stars. All around the water, mountains towered and to the east a subtle blue hue marked dawn.

The carp’s unstoppable surges caused the water to undulate around the boat as I arrived above it. For 15 minutes it thumped at the rod tip, until it was visible in the light of my headlamp, metres below the boat. Its bulky shoulders and short frame materialised momentarily before another long powerful dive. A mirror, I thought to myself. As I realised I was into a good fish, I was met with the pang of fear that often follows such a realisation. Coincidently, at that moment, the rod tip juddered as the line passed round the carp’s flank. My heart pounded and adrenaline coursed through my body at the notion that I may lose it.

A hidden gem

With the fish still firmly attached I continued to draw it closer and closer until it was over the net. In one fluid motion I lifted it, enclosing the carp in the safety of its folds. My hands were trembling with the remnants of adrenaline as I broke down the net and trundled back to shore. Upon closer inspection it was evident that the fish was a momma full of spawn. Two scales centred her huge deep blue and orange frame. Not a pretty fish by most standards but I comprehended beauty in her uniqueness. We photographed her against the lush green undergrowth and then, hypnotised, we watched as she swam away, causing cloudlets of silt to lift from the gravel lakebed.

Thankfully I didn’t have to wait long before the next bite; in fact, over the course of the day I captured four other fish, each as distinctive. The weather had been blissfully calm and hot for days but thankfully the approaching low pressure caused the fish to make a few welcome mistakes. The thing with almost all waters is that such a change does not always coincide with predictability. After that sporadic action, the carp made themselves as illusive as before. I moved, searched and plumbed the depths but I could not buy another bite.

Through such periods of waiting, I have come to realise that it’s not always essential to cast a line; sometimes just being by the water is enough for it to impart its magic. The plants, animals and various other life forms continuously dance in a state of equilibrium with one another. To apprehend its magnificence is to bloom from the buzzing confusion at the core of modern living and into the incorporeal arms of Mother Nature. For me there is no other way, I am quite convinced of this. We may have money-driven, technologically expansive cultures for sometime to come, but you can rest assured that future generations will regard it as a time when we almost fumbled the ball.

A deep, thickset mirror that was tricky to present for the camera
Full of vigour and spawn the atmosphere
I

n the weeks that followed my sessions at Du Lone, I began gaining insight into the fishes’ behaviour. Of course they were always feeding in the safest areas out of my reach, but with the luxury of time I fathomed how best to approach them. Over a two-week period I was fortunate enough to catch some remarkable fish. I even had an unlikely repeat capture of one of the lake’s big mirrors.

As I became entranced by the lake’s atmosphere, I lost track of time. I also forgot how many fish had entered the mesh of my net, but such things ceased to have meaning. All that mattered was that I was there and could continue to be there. The lake provided all I needed: fresh water for the shower, the odd predatory fish for dinner, not to mention a few crayfish. Simple things like collecting firewood and searching for food made more sense than anything I had ever put my mind to. The more time I resided in that environment, the more apparent it became that the modern culture I’d been raised in lacked depth. I could hardly conceive that a few simple life choices could result in knowing such freedom.

I was very lucky to land this fish no thanks to my less than desirable indicator

It was a perfect time to be by the water. The carp were rotund and full of vigour prior to spawning and, fortunately for me, had become catchable. On one particular day I had a run of three monster fish including a long defiant mirror. Somehow it managed to avoid registering a note on my less than desirable spare bite indicator and passed some two-hundred-yards down the lake in the opposite direction. Only when it tightened up slack line did it register as a bite. It took me a few moments to comprehend what had happened and to my astonishment it had completely avoided a huge up-ended truck submerged in the middle of the lake.

Immediately I took to the boat, continuing the battle over safer waters. In my excitement I almost convinced myself I had hooked a fish which I had seen from the top of an alder the previous spring; one that dwarfed a passing fifty by orders of magnitude. It was wishful thinking. Below the boat in the emerald water something stirred, the faint glimmer of my fish just visible in the glaring sun. I applied additional pressure to keep it from getting any closer to the treacherous lakebed. It gradually began circling the boat, which I took to be an indication things were going in my favour. I could see it was a long powerful fish as it bored away spooked by the sight of my net. Nearly twenty minutes passed and my arm was cramped, already fatigued from the previous captures. It neared the surface, at which point it completely gave up and made for easy netting. Both exhausted, we gathered ourselves a moment before I headed back to shore.

A secluded swim that I couldn’t resist

In the safety of my unhooking mat I could see the fish was pristine. A jewelled bluish hue ran its entire flank merging into the web of its mighty paddle. I was totally beat and felt the burn upon lifting him for a few snaps. I then lowered him into the water and thanked him for such a glorious encounter. He rested for several minutes while I gently stroked his belly. When he regained strength he slid from my grasp down into the deep margins.

For me there is something special about being in the water with a fish as it departs. It feels like an opportunity to make peace with such a mysterious creature. There is no doubt that a carp is put through a great deal of stress during capture. This is something that I am very conscious of and hope won’t eat away at me until one day I am unable to cast another line.

A view across the Chene mountains

As bizarre as it may appear to the non-angler, the catching and releasing of fish affords us anglers the opportunity to gain deeper respect for our quarry. If we remain conscious of this, we develop a deeper respect for all nature. To my mind, an initiation into the world of angling is permission to delve deeper into the magic of the natural world. On the surface, a carp angler can appear to be either plain lazy or very patient. The answer lies in his intention. In my humble opinion, a connection with nature will not make a bad angler good, but it will make a good angler better. It will also ensure that carp angling itself survives and nature isn’t denuded. Watercraft is not just about learning how to best extract a wary fish from its watery home, it’s also about understanding how best to maintain and preserve the equilibrium surrounding fish and all nature. The fish and its environment are one and the same; they are inexorably coupled and cannot survive without each other.

We inevitably ran out of time concerning the alpine water and I hadn’t managed to tempt the monster I had hoped for. I knew that I would return in the autumn for another attempt and so that was that. We upped and left, heading west for the region of Lot where new discoveries awaited us.

A long hard fighting alpine common
Alex Norgate
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