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Operation Freedom: Part 6
From the bleakness of winter comes the beauty and rebirth of spring, Alex heads his converted van in the direction of Italy...

Three unhurried months tumbled around my camper until it became but a featureless mound in the vast white that only winter appreciates. Looking out through a tiny pine window made a decade ago during my brother’s woodwork class, I came to; my gaze passing amongst gatherings of snow-cloaked evergreens to a small winter bird jostling midst the powder. Closing my eyes I listened intently as it called out, almost inaudible through a flurry of blizzard. Snow does funny things to sound; somehow immense spaces feel intimate, like a cozy room or a densely woven wood. It’s almost unbearable silence bewilders the mind with a depthless clarity.

A golden dawn full of promise. Camera dials: Canon EOS 550D, 18mm, f6.3, 1/125

During those months in between a run of gigs, I bumped into an old friend. Little did I know at the time that we would become deeply entwined with one another. Consequently time seemed to gather momentum. Before the snow had time to melt, plans evolved that we would go on an adventure. Patricia had an affinity for nature not unlike myself. The idea of the open road, lakes, good food and spring sun was certainly alluring. After making preparations, eyes glinting, we set off along the stark mountain lanes for Italy. Primrose peppered hillsides hailing a much-anticipated spring.

“Nature is not our enemy, to be raped and conquered. Nature is ourselves, to be cherished and explored.” Terence-McKenna

I’d not cast a line in Italy before and I was enthralled by the prospect. As we neared a 400-hectare jewel that Patricia had brought to my attention, my mind buzzed with curious visions of what we might encounter. Reaching the lake by nightfall and after examining the area, we discovered a secluded nook beside a vineyard to rest for the night.

Dawn carried with it a warm glow that eased itself through the curtains. Beautiful orange shimmering light caressed the pine cladded walls bringing me to the realisation that just a stone’s throw away rested a watery utopia. In a moment I was skipping my way half clothed along the edge of the vineyard – sun glaring down imposing a squint. Patricia followed and we both stood beaming like children at the beginning of summer. Beyond rolling pasture a soothing view apprehended our gaze.

A secluded nook to spend our first night

We obtained regional licenses from a post office in the nearest town then followed calming grass peppered lanes back toward the water. At the bottom of a small rolling hill, circled with lime green ash trees, awaited the perfect swim. It was an isolated tranquil little alcove frequented by donkeys and horses that hovered around us inquisitively for hours at a time. It felt like a good place to be, a kind of healing energy resonated the air, felt to the core and deep in the bones.

During that first night nothing stirred us, neither did it on the second or third for that matter. It was only on the fifth and final night that I chanced a bite on corn from out in front of an old concrete pontoon. The fish rolled and cavorted in the shallows, neither one of us budging. Fortunately it kited right out into the lake away from the pontoon; I breathed a sigh of relief and allowed myself to enjoy feeling connected after such a long winter.

Out on the surface something faintly reflected my headlight caused instant panic. We’d moved swims as darkness fell and I’d not glimpsed the small, low-lying buoy which now threatened disaster. I cranked hard, but an unpleasant sensation of mono grating chain shivered through the blank. In a few seconds the whole thing unfolded in slow motion, the fish thrashed effortlessly snapping the line against old rusty chain. My heart sank and my body stooped as a sickening feeling cruised its way through my veins.

“In a few seconds the whole thing unfolded in slow motion, the fish thrashed effortlessly snapping the line against old rusty chain. My heart sank and my body stooped as a sickening feeling cruised its way through my veins.”

Navigating unsettling lanes, dead ends, and protruding balconies we were on our way again. Patricia keenly searched out potential spits of water and by evening time we were parked in a small lay-by a mile or so from what looked to be a beautiful pool deep in a wooded reserve. Following a gravel and stone track we weaved through knotted oaks intoxicated by an atmosphere thick with the promise of carp. Arriving at the mouth of a small clearing we stood transfixed by an Amazonian-like vastness cladding the ancient rock and fertile earth as far as our eyes could extend. She was wild, so wild my heart sang.
Wandering the lake’s edge, our feet fell softly on the stark sandy ground. Cloud-drenched hillsides steamed away like temperate equatorial jungle; if a monkey had swung into view it would not have looked out of place. Out of nowhere, two predator anglers emerged, perhaps the only anglers around. Eagerly we asked about the lake and gladly they informed us of its carp. My elation grew; I knew immediately we must cast. I scuttled back to the van and began traipsing kit by bike to the perimeter of the forest.

In subterranean darkness, rods were poised and dinner prepared over flickering fire. The occasional splashing of something distinctly fishy echoed through the warm evening, but I wasn’t convinced it was carp. Having not eaten all day, we sat backs pressed against a thick oak savouring every mouthful of the delicious meal Patricia had prepared, simultaneously eavesdropping on the lake’s subtle rhythms.

My first Italian encounter

A lone star emanated through a crease in the cloud momentarily, then was gone again. I had a feeling it was one of those rare situations where beginner’s luck may be fortuitous. There was a chance and that was all we needed. Settling down for the night I lay listening intently and then without even passing a noticeable transition I was twisting amongst the fabric of distant worlds.

At midnight, a light rain began tickling the skin of our shelter, rousing me briefly. The next thing I knew, beginner’s luck was upon me. Down the steep sandy bank I skipped, making contact. The rod tip bounced, I wound down excitedly but was met with a less than desirable sensation. A snag. I slackened the spool, feeling the line through my fingertips. It moved a little and then a bit more until line poured from the spool. I waited and then lifted, reeling down hard. A forgiving jolt brought me back in contact and I pressured it to keep it from whatever misfortune loomed below. After cautiously leading it to the net, my first Italian encounter rested among black honeycomb folds; a jewelled masterpiece to briefly brighten the drizzly morning.

Unrelenting, the rain beat down, soaking through my dilapidated brolly. We retreated into corners to shield ourselves from trickles seeping through its weathered seams. Patricia was yet to catch and I hoped the next bite would be hers. Time sailed, turning day to night and then to day again. As twilight gradually emerged through a roaring downpour, a muffled shrill stirred us. We both leapt out into the sodden morning ill prepared. Patricia connected whilst I did my best to offer guidance. Soon enough a gilded example of nature’s preference for complexity lay cradled in Patricia’s arms, and not one grimace. We left drenched, though plastered in mud and happier for it.

Patricia’s turn

During the following two weeks we drifted through small towns and villages surrounding Lago d’Orta and Varese. One evening in particular while walking off a heavy meal, we happened upon a bedraggled baby pigeon huddled against a stone wall. He’d obviously jumped or been pushed, I’m not sure which. I carefully placed him in a raised plant pot just next to where he was nestled. If he remained until the following day we’d intervene. Remarkably when we passed again, he was still there shivering and docile. After a bit of research we prepared him some oatmeal and sweetcorn paste, then fed it to him with the aid of a chopstick. That was that; from then on he was known as Norman.

In between our cuisine exploits and pigeon whispering we spent a couple of days fishing here and there. I put a great deal of energy into trying to catch but my efforts were in vain. In hindsight I was biting off way more than I could chew. The waters were huge and the fishing reputed to be very hard on all of them. Despite failing to catch we didn’t leave empty handed. The experience of fishing those places was inspiring; anyone who has the time and inclination is more than worthy of their treasures.

Heading further east we called on several lakes that had been recommended by some cheerful soul at a tackle shop. Unfortunately, they all turned out to be rather unappealing. Deflated, we pointed the van in the direction of a well-known water by the name of Pusiano. It was a last resort being a pay-to-play but we’d had enough of driving and wanted to fish. The only swim available sat behind what seemed at the time a quiet industrial building. We later named it the gates of hell because for one thing it wasn’t quiet. That said, the view across the lake was attractive and so we made of it the best we could.

A borrowed fish
A silvery surface in which to loose our gaze. Camera dials: Canon EOS 550D, 18mm, f9, 1/200
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Two nights passed quickly, stripping me of all my self-assured confidence. My mind rattled but I’d seemingly exhausted all my tricks. Well, except one; a woman’s intuition. Patricia had not yet cast a line so via boat we placed a bait at the edge of a dense reedbed; a blackening sky swallowing the remains of day.

As my consciousness reinserted itself into waking reality, an unpleasant realisation dawned. Our attempts had been fruitless yet again. Frustrated I sulked to myself, longing for a miracle. The universe responded. Suddenly I was being sucked from comfort into waste deep water; fish exploding out of the margins. Around the front of the dense reedbed to my right it charged. Wading deeper still I held the fish as it gnawed away, pushing into the reeds. Patricia arrived with the boat still half asleep. It was the point where I should have handed over the rod but something not altogether wholesome prevented me. I guess it was due to a combination of things, namely desperation. Fortunately she didn’t mind at all. As far as she was concerned we were in it together, but when all was said and done I vowed never to do it again.

My next concern was to stop the fish making its way towards foreboding obstacles dotting the crystal water in front of me. It twisted and boiled subsurface, occasionally flashing us a flank of intermeshing tiger’s eye; luminescent jewels refracting the dawn light. Beaming smiles exchanged when it finally lay in the net. It’s surprising how one fish has the ability to adjust the focus of the mind. No fish and we would have left with our tails between our legs. Instead, we took to the road uplifted, restored and full of enthusiasm.

Lago d’Orta

Retracing our steps, we headed westward towards Como, coming to rest at the small lakeside town of Belagio. In the warm twilight we drifted dimly lit cobbled streets. The air filled with mouth-watering aromas from kitchen windows and lakeside eateries. Eventually we stumbled on a small alcove, a warm light pouring through a tattered oak door. The appropriate feeling drawing us in until we found ourselves seated, sampling other worldly sustenance well into the evening. By that point Norman had slept an entire week, undoubtedly a little traumatised from his experiences. Everyday, he would grow a little stronger, keeping his eyes open just long enough for us to get some food and water in him.

After several days in Balagio I observed an intensifying need to cast. We drove until the sun skirted a hazy horizon silhouetting a mist-shrouded valley that contained our lake; one that had been eroding the shores of my mind ever since its discovery weeks prior.

A bedraggled baby pigeon who we later named Norman

The first two days eased by with the quality of a dream. We were so happy to be back that we hardly considered the lack of fish activity. After breakfast I rattled off on my bike, snooping and scanning the margins eagerly for signs of the apparently elusive creature we sought. After some unsuccessful hours I made my way back via a pontoon to the right of our swim. I stood for ten minutes or so gazing over the water while basking in the warm spring sun. Nothing. I turned to walk back and there, in amongst the rocks and silt, three carp intently mouthed the lakebed. Cascades of pinhead-sized bubbles effervesced to the surface. Every detail visible, even the tiny spots on the pre-spawning males’ heads. Gazing back out over the water several other patches bubbled away. It was precisely at that moment that I could not only see fish, but I could actually feel their presence. Such terminology may seem ambiguous to a hardcore rationalist, but anyone who spends a lot of time angling will know exactly what I mean. The presence was undeniable and it almost made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.

Placing two rods close to the end of the pontoon with a scattering of free offerings, I waited, watching intently. Perhaps thirty minutes passed before small clusters of bubbles began fizzing above the hookbaits. I watched transfixed, tingling with anticipation. The rod tip quivered slightly, then 80yds away the surface erupted; the suddenness of the moment reverberating through me. It went berserk, kiting all over the place, quickly making it to a moored boat before we’d even boarded ours. Fortunately the line ran free, so on arrival I un-looped it by passing the rod underwater. Nervously I played the fish for fifteen minutes dodging boats and buoys until a sizable gleaming common was ours.

Shortly after the rod was repositioned I had another take. This fish went straight out into open water and put up the most incredible fight. I kept staring down at it through the clear water just to check I wasn’t losing my mind. A dark chestnut powerhouse surging below us well over a metre in length.

Ritual union

Having caught two fish in quick succession I reeled in, allowing Patricia to place her rods on the hot spot. Being her first foray into angling, I was keen for her to connect, but all went quiet after my sporadic bout of action. As the sun blazed an inferno across a mackerel sky, we sat expectant but the fish had long since departed.

The dawn chorus seemed particularly melodious and our surroundings vivid as a distant fireball boiled us from our sleeping bag. We ate a light breakfast and was just about to fire up the Kelly Kettle when Patricia’s rod tore off. Instinctively, we ran up the bank jumping straight into the boat. Patricia’s arms ached long before the fish, another long dark common, was ready. In due course the carp was lying safely within folds of the net. We glided back to dry land, silently propelled by the electric outboard. I felt extremely content as I watched the water. It was like a sheet of reflective turquoise glass liquefying in our wake.

We celebrated with a pipe, shortly followed by a siesta under a willow in the heat of day. The action continued; several more beautiful fish were landed before the sky progressively darkened in the east, a subtle breeze dappling the silver surface. Suddenly the day felt oppressive and ominous, enforced by the distant rumbles of thunder. Perfect weather for big carp, I thought to myself.

Dark scaly splendour

The evening drew in fast. We positioned rods while huge forks of lightening ripped across the horizon causing thunderous echoes to bellow in a series of staggered reflections. Then it was upon us. The defining roar of the first heavy downpour abruptly demanding our attention. It was humbling. I pleaded the carp cease feeding until the storm had passed. It raged through the entire night, forcing giant waves to crash over the rocks that lined our swim. By 3am the storm began to lull slightly. I was spent and rapidly descended into sleep, escorted by the rumbling remains of reality.

With the air noticeably cooler, neither of us wanted to leave the comfort of our sleeping bag. Eventually appetites got the better of us and so we went about preparing breakfast; freshly sliced grapefruit followed by plum and raisin cake. It was fantastic with tea.

On return from the woods I noticed Patricia at the water’s edge tackling a fish. Apparently she had been calling out for me. I motioned for her to keep tension as we went full speed out into the bay beyond the pontoon where it had been hooked.

A moment that I shall not forget

The line passed toward a further pontoon. As we neared I could see the line leading underneath one of the low arches supporting the pontoon. We ducked just underneath then followed the line back up to the top of the pontoon, where it passed under a section that floated on the surface. The line passed between two chains that fixed the whole pontoon in place. There was no way of getting under without taking a plunge. Spearing the landing net handle along the bottom I managed to lift the line to the surface revealing the fish’s direction. In a moment of quick thinking Patricia passed the rod under the platform. I leant down grabbing the tip section from the other side and pulled the entire rod through.

Miraculously it worked! I tightened up on the fish and immediately handed the rod back. Glimpsing a brief flash of the carp flank at some distance, I thought she might be into a really big fish. It turned once more, churning the shallows with its huge tail. “It is a big one,” I exclaimed. Zigzagging its way towards me, I pushed the net down on the sandy lakebed watching its huge mouth gulp the surface. The carp’s golden flanks and broad back passed into the folds of the net. Without a moment’s hesitation I lifted it laughing in astonishment.

The heavens opened as we boated our way back to the swim, confounded by the miracle that had transpired.

Patricia was barely able to lift her for a photo, but with a little help we managed a good snap. Lovingly held in the margins until strength regained, she glided majestically in to her liquid domain, immaculate scales gleaming brightly in the subdued light of our departure.

Heading back through the mountain cols we hardly passed a single dwelling. The isolation pulled at me. Moved my inner being to dream. Something about deserted distant lands with unknown potential unlocked a doorway; a scintilla for a future time when I would be ready for such adventure.

Astonishing
Alex Norgate
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