How Darrell Peck conquered Conningbrook
No bullsh*t, just good solid angling
This time around, no-nonsense big fish angler Darrell Peck looks back at his time on the ultra hard Conningbrook and reveals how he thinks all the pieces of the jigsaw came together
Most of you reading this will probably have heard of Conningbrook and of course Two-Tone, the country’s current record carp, but for those that haven’t I’ll quickly explain the brief.
At the time, this lake in Kent of around 30-acres held no more than 30 carp. The original part of the pit was about 20-acres but later it had been dug through into another lake of about half the size by the time I was on scene. Although at this point it was technically one lake, they were entirely different in many ways. The original, or ‘old part’, was generally between 10-18ft deep with a boring, unexciting and often smelly lakebed. The newer part though, wasn’t like that, it had ups and downs and on average was 7-12ft deep and it just felt that much more carpy.
If fishing a lake with just one carp per acre sounds difficult, imagine how hard it would be if only 15 of them regularly visited the bank each year. And then combine this with insane amounts of natural food and competition for swims from the best anglers I have ever fished alongside. I am not talking about anglers that think they are a big deal just because they can cast in a straight line and are technically sound. I am talking about some of the best carp hunters in the country; anglers with vision and watercraft that were competing and pushing each other to mind-blowing levels.
Reminiscing about it now, the first thing that springs to mind is the unique atmosphere the place held after dark. An eerie fog would often shroud the lake on calm nights, lingering like a giant caldron of anticipation. Whether it was due to its location close to the coast I am not sure, but I have certainly never fished anywhere like it before or since.
Now for all the anticipation and atmosphere there was, there was also lots of downtime, especially mid-summer at the peak of the natural food cycle. I think at one point I’d done a 40 night stretch without a bite! The hardest thing with these lean spells was keeping my focus level. It was all too easy to get over involved in the social side of things and The Brook was truly special for that. Every night someone would be rocking a communal BBQ and everyone was welcome. The beers would flow and by the time you returned to your swim you were never as sharp as before. Now I am all up for a beer, maybe even one too many, but lose your edge here and without doubt you’d be the missing the subtleties that led to chances.
Case Study 1: Wind rules
As a general rule, the fish in Conningbrook liked to follow the wind and at times in the spring they’d follow the slightest of breeze, even if it only lasted an hour. Working this out didn’t take a genius and putting two and two together would suggest this was down to the abundance of natural food in the upper layers. I am sure had we all fished Zigs we would have caught a lot more. Obviously we did think of it at the time, but we all seemed to doubt it was the way to catch the country’s biggest carp.
With the fish moving on the wind it was easy to predict their movements but being so obvious it made it a complete rat race. Once two of you had set your stall out in the windward corner the rest were left camping. Often when the right wind was forecast into one of the areas the big mirror favoured, it was necessary to get in there 24hrs before the wind arrived, thus initially wasting half of your permitted 48hr stay. I remember doing this twice in May 2007. The forecast was showing 15mph north, northeast winds straight into Perfume Bay and I just had a hunch this would be a great shout. I set-up on The Island and by dawn the following morning, the sky on the horizon looked ominously dark and slowly the wind picked up driving waves into the bay. It looked ridiculous, so good it was a joke, but despite all this I’d not seen anything.
Oz Holness popped into my swim in the afternoon and just as I explained that I’d not seen anything I heard something, making us both look up. Out in the mouth of this bay was the aftermath of a huge show quickly disappearing in the waves. Then just a few moments later with our eyes fixed on the water, the huge, steely grey bulk of Two-Tone rose out of the waves not once but twice more; truly a moment I will never forget. Somehow I drove out a tiny 1.5oz in-line into the gusting wind and not only did it land exactly where he’d showed, but I got a drop in a very weedy area where I probably shouldn’t have. At this point I was around 100 nights deep into the campaign and this was without doubt the closest I’d felt.
The hours passed slowly that evening and I was on the edge of my seat. It wasn’t to be but The Little Friendly Common did pick up that bait a few hours after dark leaving me with absolutely no hope of being able to reset the trap.
The week after this I set-up ahead of another decent wind, on The Island again, but in my haste I’d overshot the mark. The wind and the fish arrived as I had to leave. I was still driving home when I got the call Two-Tone had been caught that afternoon from The Perfume Bay, although 60yds or so deeper into the bay than where I’d been fishing.
Case Study 2: Singles and natural food
In hindsight, at Conningbrook, it was clear that the fish didn’t really care too much for anglers nor their baits. They simply didn’t need to. The amount of natural food at times meant all they had to do was swim around with their mouths open to get their fill. A few anglers caught fish over bait on occasions but most of the fish fell to single hookbaits and I’ll try and explain why I think this was.
For the most part the fishing was extremely slow, but there definitely seemed to be little flurries of action around certain times where we all stood a better chance. Obviously a lake like this was a shocking winter water with captures in November all the way through to the end of March, rarer than rocking horse poop. The first bites occurred in April with the action peaking throughout May. Now in these two months there might have been a total of 15 or so bites! June tended to be a bit trickier bite-wise with as few as a handful caught, although saying that, Two-Tone was probably the most catchable fish post-spawning.
July and August though were absolute head-bangers, the most frustrating fishing you can imagine. The fish would become less mobile and would congregate around the largest, grassy-type weedbeds that reached the surface in depths as much as 15ft. Some mornings they’d put on massive displays that would have you crouched next to the rods thinking ‘any second’. Bear in mind I’ve said 30 carp top wack and some mornings you’d see 60 shows yet not get a bleep. I’m sure they rarely went anywhere near the bottom during these months, they were simply gorging themselves in the upper layers on naturals, oblivious to our rigs and baits down below them.
Early September would see cooler nights and the first of the autumn blows, quickly followed by the grassy weed dying back. Then, like a switch had been flicked, there would be another flurry of 15 or so bites before Two-Tone made his autumn appearance, thus completing the cycle.
Now to my mind this points towards dips in the abundance of natural food. Obviously at the start of spring, the carp wake up/start moving round and in doing so, start burning/using energy and are on the lookout for food and although not what I’d call ‘bait fish’ they would graze over large areas of desolate bottom and were prone to picking up the odd single boilie. Then, with the peaking of the natural food mid-summer we’d be left speculating at a mass feeding event that we weren’t invited to until early autumn when the levels dropped slightly to make them hungry enough to consider eating those little round balls that, although tasty and nutritious, came with the undeniable risk of being dragged from the lake.
In the end it was a simple equation: we only ever caught them when these levels were low and even then, they were never desperate enough to completely throw total caution to the wind.
Case Study 3: Observation
You’d expect when targeting the largest carp in the country, the competition would be pretty fierce, right? At Yateley I thought I’d be up against the best anglers I was likely to come across but I was mistaken, because the watercraft level here was one of the most eye-opening experiences I’d ever seen. I’m going to drop a few names here, some you will of heard of, others probably not: Jonny Mac, John Bird, Leroy Swan, Tom Banks, Little Rich and Oz Holness to mention just half-a-dozen of them. Obviously that’s just the tip of an iceberg as there were plenty more good anglers but these guys all stood out to me at certain times for various reasons but primarily for their limitless intent to find them.
Information about past captures was freely available but the most important stuff – what you’d seen and where – was an entirely different thing. The only way of staying on the pulse here was to watch like your life depended on it. Miss a show and the opportunity would get swallowed up before you had time to blink. All but two of the 12 fish I caught came as the direct result of a reaction to a sighting.
When I say observation, I am not talking about winding in at lunchtime for a quick lap before recasting; I am talking about being awake at all hours, constantly and relentlessly listening and watching from the best view points, and being ready to move at the drop of a hat.
Case Study 4: Resilience and persistence
I didn’t catch Two-Tone quickly at all. Yes, it was quicker than some, but I fished Conningbrook pretty much exclusively from April to October two years running, two nights a week and by the time I’d caught him, I’d clocked up some serious time for my efforts. Whatever way you look at this, there were some savagely lean periods between bites where I began to question what it’s all about.
In the run up to my capture of Two-Tone I’d set out on a mini baiting campaign in areas he’d been caught from, trying to bring him to me as opposed to general method of chasing around the lake. This quickly brought about a lengthy blank spell where I began to not enjoy my fishing at all. At the end of the day I fish for fun, no one puts pressure on me to catch fish but myself, so effectively everything I do is optional. But when you set your goals high and push as hard as you can towards something without success, it’s easy for the motivation, determination and belief to be undermined. Yes, I had doubts that I would ever catch him and when the going got tough I often asked myself was it all worth it. Sometimes that’s the difference: you just have to keep on keeping on, dig a little deeper and push on that extra mile.
In the end the capture was almost a gift for the persistence I’d shown. There was no miraculous angling puzzle solved, it just happened. I was waiting in a swim just up the bank from Oz who was in a swim where I’d caught The Friendly Mirror a couple of days previously. Obviously I was mega keen to get back in there but with the 48hr rule I’d had to wait for 24hrs close by.
I remember it was about 8am, Oz was due off about lunchtime and I was fairly certain nothing was happening when suddenly Two-Tone jumped in front of me 30-40yds out. What happened next was almost like autopilot taking over. I found myself, rod-in-hand, staring out to a large patch of bubbles lining up to cast. I was concerned I might not get it right first time so to make sure I didn’t mess it up I deliberately wacked it out 30-40yds beyond these bubbles before trapping it, quickly engaging the bail arm and winding the rig back along the surface towards the bubbles. At the moment the leadcore reached them I allowed the rig to sink to the bottom exactly where he had shown and just a few seconds later I was connected to the largest carp this country has seen. Countless nights thinking and plotting and in the end I just chucked a single where he told me to… Until next time, cheers.