A Wing And a Prayer
Nick Helleur fills the room with passion and excitement, discussing his European adventure-style angling he’s so famous for #ThrowbackThursday
Sitting in a dimly lit café on the outskirts of North London, coffee machines burring away in the background, it’s hard not to smile and be drawn in as Nick Helleur fills the room with passion and excitement, discussing his European adventure-style angling he’s so famous for: from a tag-along, self-proclaimed pest at fifteen to his many annual trips today three decades later.
Nick, why did you first go over to Europe to fish and what was your reason for doing so?
“I was fishing in the Colne Valley at the time, around 1987, so obviously I was only a kid. I left school in ‘88 so I would have been fifteen. I went with six or seven others who were all fishing on the Conservative Club in Ricky where I was. It was with a few of the local lads, I can’t remember everybody, but they were all older. The Cassien thing had happened a couple of years before and I was just desperate to go on the next one as a little kid but of course no one was going to take me because I was so much younger. Back in those days there weren’t lots of young carp anglers like there are today.
“Anyway, Bob Tilbury who was matey with Rod Hutchinson had arranged to go on another trip to Holland. I remember seeing his brace catch shots - and you’ve got to realise by this time I’d caught a lot of 20lb carp already, probably only a few commons though as they were like rocking horse shit, but seeing those brace shots of Rod with 20lb commons with all these huge ships in the background was mesmerising. This amazing vista with the rods up in the air.
“The following year Rod told Bob where he’d gone in Holland and Bob and the lads had decided to make a trip of it - to the very same park lakes outside of Rotterdam that I’d seen these incredible photos from. The following year, me (The Pest), Bob Tilbury, Boy George (George Bishop), Larry, Big Rob (Boiler Suit), Bill and Ben Tucker took two cars over. I managed to get in with the gang that went and we went to these parks in Bleiswijk. I remember one of the lads got 10kg of the new 50/50 mix from Bob Baker at Richworth which I reckon in those days was 50% semolina and 50% soya flour with a little bit of flavouring. It was a basic mix but we had a lot of bait between us and it worked in the UK so we were more than confident in it back then. The bait game’s changed a lot since then, that’s for sure. We’d just got this Ethyl-alcohol flavour called Strawberry Jam as well.
“So we set off on the ferry, which was a big thing back then. It’s not like now; I’m off to Belgium with my little girl on Monday and I’ll be there in a few hours. Back in those days it was a big do: we’d get on an overnight boat which had a disco on it! As you can imagine, we all got completely smashed; I was only fifteen and off my face with a boat full of Chelsea supporting football hooligans on their way to a game overseas! I think I supported Chelsea that night if I’m honest, even though I was never into football! It was just a big p*** up. Back then, everyone used to go on booze cruises and get these overnighter ferries. There were birds everywhere and most of the guys would get to Holland and stay on it to go back again to get duty-free, get pissed and pull some girls.
“My over-riding memory of the trip was the beautiful Serene Lake: wooden piles all around the edge, 4ft straight across to the far bank reeds and really simple fishing. One night we were all fishing behind the island and we’d had well over 20 commons and I was putting them all in sacks for the morning photos. We’d borrowed them specifically for the trip and they had this press-pull thing to close them. Each sack had five or six carp in and by morning we went to get them out for one big mass photo. Anyway, they’d all gone!
“Everyone beat me up… and threw me in if I remember! Each day we sat on the bank and rolled our strawberry jam boilies out. This is how long ago it was. People reading this probably won’t believe it, but we met some local carp anglers and they were using potatoes on treble hooks! They were getting takes and letting them run before winding down and striking through the potato to hook the carp – and they were catching. Admittedly not many compared to our, at the time, modern methods, but they were having some. We were laughing, as you can imagine; we were lightyears ahead and getting 10 or so runs to their one.
“Primarily it was just the park lakes that we fished but we did explore some bigger waters while we were there. You’d do well on these peanut-shaped park lakes with beaches at each end, and particularly in the morning you’d see the water mussing up where the fish were and they were quite catchable. We all came back better anglers for it I think, and despite fishing good English lakes it was still hard to catch so it was nice to have hits of fish for the time and effort we put in.”
What was the main difference when you went to Europe, was it a completely different atmosphere and a big expedition?
“It’s like anything, in that instantly you’ve gone from the same to something new, and something new is always good. Those formative trips resonated so much with me because it was so different to what I was used to. Rather than going down the local lake and getting dropped off by my Mum and knowing everybody and everybody knew you, even though it was exciting at the time because there was still a lot of mystery back then, that whole travelling and exploring really was incredible.
“Thirty years on from that first trip and I’ve probably done hundreds of trips and I still get that same buzz each and every time because there is so much to explore and fish for. Every time I went it was a new place, a new view and I didn’t know what was in there.
“The next year, in 1988, I went back to Bleiswijk with my girlfriend and my mate George and his girlfriend. I’d just left school and was only sixteen and I was driving my girlfriend’s car all over Holland - I didn’t even have a license. A few beers and a smoke too many most of the time and unbeknown to us it was a very dangerous place back then.
“We met an Indonesian lad who was a carp angler and he had a butterfly knife. I remember asking him what all the bullet holes in the signs around the parks were about and he told me that the police would do their rounds but wouldn’t get out the car - they’d just drive up to the barriers and refused to walk round the lakes at night. He told me it was the heroin addicts causing all the problems and went on to explain how the knife would fend the junkies off. We didn’t have a clue what kind of dangers we were putting ourselves in really. It wasn’t quite as fun after that meeting; we were young and probably more stupid than fearless but that certainly put the wind up me that’s for sure. I don’t think I slept that night anyway.
“I fished a couple of the bigger lakes the following year and then that was it, I was hooked. The next step was France and from 1988 I made that annual trip for a few years after scraping the money together to go.
“Around the turn of the Nineties I was absolutely off my head a lot of the time, it was the rave days and we were young, stupid and hedonistic, so fishing naturally took a back step. I was still into my fishing but the partying took over for a couple of years. Around 1992/3 I started to see pictures from the rivers in France; I think it was the Belgians driving over. It was only a day in the car for them hopping the border, but for us it was always a big thing. I’ve always tried to explain to my European friends that it is a big thing because we’re islanders and there’s a lot more to it than jumping in the car after work on a Friday, or at least it was.
“It’s so hard for people to understand now because if someone says I’m going to Austria I can get straight on Google Earth and show them what’s about. You can sort out everywhere worth looking at, with good parking, work out how to get everywhere; I can even drop pins to get exactly there. This is what’s been lost now. I spoke to Roger Smith, one of the early English pioneers along with Rod who started that movement and I remember Rod saying when they first found the River Yon it took them three days of messing about to even find the river itself. Driving down tracks, camping in the middle of nowhere just trying to get to the water. To all the young kids that think they’re Jonny The Hunter, you probably just follow a SatNav, myself included. It’s easy now, but they were the pioneers.
“Out of Paris, the Seine and the Yon split, and on the maps it looked like there were loads of lakes coming off the river which there was. They used to extract the gravel straight from the river and barge it to where it was needed, leaving loads of lakes joined to the river. In our minds, although we weren’t great anglers or strategists, we soon figured we could bait both rivers where they were reasonably close to each other, and in a few spots downstream on each river too. Dropping on the different spots on different rivers was a great idea but to start with we were clueless, using 11lb Brim, bought from an advert in the back of the Anglers Mail. We used this cheap line and 90p-a-pack hooks and back then it was Jack Hilton Carp Hooks still. Now it’d be like using roach tackle - we lost so many fish back then, they were probably not even carp half the time but it was so exciting and the learning curve was very steep. It took us a long time to work it out, but eventually we were using sea line for leaders and really getting our hand on whatever we could, purely out of necessity.
“Adventure to a young man is a powerful thing. It was cheaper back then but we also had less money. Not only were we clueless but we were skint. Reliable cars, breakdown cover and travel insurance was never a worry, we were in the lap of the Gods.”
On that note, what was the worst situation you found yourself in when on these excursions into Europe?
“We ran out of fuel many times, and now you’d know if there was a planned fuel strike, but in those days it was too late by the time we found out. There was one occasion when we’d be driving around looking for a petrol station. We didn’t speak French, we had no intention of trying, and we were foolish in thinking that everyone should just speak English. We’d finally came across a garage but it was shut! We were driving in my mate Dan’s old Escort van, heading for the ferry, and whilst the needle was nearly always on empty, this time dangerously close to the ‘very empty’ stop on the needle. We kept saying we’re running out and I was looking on the map trying to work out where we were. Driving through a small hamlet, we were in the middle of nowhere. The next town was twice as far as the previous town 3hrs ago – we were in big shit!
“We came to a junction and off to the right there was a big village so we pulled over at a garage, but of course it was shut at 2am - well, unless you used the credit card pump – they were very rare back then actually. The van had just started spluttering so we had little choice than to get the beds out and wait until morning. I don’t know what our plan was because we had no cash on us let alone a card to pay with! You couldn’t have written it: there we were, two idiotic Englishmen on a pitch black garage forecourt!
“Anyway, we could have only been asleep for ten minutes when this crash woke us up; a French bloke was so drunk he’d actually crashed into the pump housing next to us. He got out on his hands and knees in the car park as Dan and I were looking on in hysterics as the drunken man was trying haplessly to fit the nozzle into his fuel tank.
“I don’t know how Dan did it but he somehow managed to exchange the few Francs we had for a tank of diesel on this poor guy’s credit card. A few minutes later and we were roaring up the road once more leaving matey asleep in his car completely sozzled!
“We made the ferry that trip, but the fuel issue happened loads of times with fuel strikes. I’ve been a bit wayward in my life but I’ve never been a thief. There have, however, been many occasions where I’ve been loitering around farms late at night with a bottle and piece of pipe we’ve found on the road trying to get some diesel out of a tractor to get further up the road. The stories like that are many, and varied too – such is life. Out of all that time, we were always in the lap of the carp Gods, they always took care of us by hook or by crook. A bit of passion and adventure can go a long way.”
Did you ever find yourself in a dangerous situation then?
“We were young and probably in lots of dangerous situations with heroin addicts and teenagers intent on robbing you, you know, lots of undesirables with potentially very dangerous outcomes. We’d often get out of them by offering people a cup of tea or a smoke; you’d be surprised how far that gets you in all honesty. We could have easily got out of situations using violence ourselves: two young, streetwise lads, but I can honestly say we never had to resort to that, we never got into any physical altercations.
“Anywhere near water, a town by the river for example, you get the best of society, and the worst people. It all changed around the time of the Bosnian war, all of a sudden there were a lot of people trying to get out of Eastern Europe and naturally they used the river networks with no money, coming from a war-torn country, mentally broken. They’d nick a boat and try to paddle out of trouble and quite a few of the rivers in Northern France that we fished were really dangerous. I’ve got lots of stories of people getting held up and not just their kit taken but their vehicles too.
“I suppose I’ve always been careful, not least because we only ever had a little bit of money. We never had a back-up credit card so we would have been stuffed if we found ourselves in that situation. Should my car blow up now a card would see it fixed or a rental would get me home, back then there was none of that security. We were always lucky, and if you’re brave enough and you keep a level head you’ll be fine. We never went there with bad intentions, it was just to be adventurous and seek freedom. As you get older you realise you just want a bit of something more exciting than what you were doing at home.”
What is the one reason that has kept you going back to explore around Europe in search of carp?
“I didn’t, or have never, been able to afford it. Most people in the modern sense don’t earn enough to fish like I do because they don’t have enough ‘disposable income’ so to speak. I have never really had that either, but I know a lot of people that work really hard and have the trappings of modern life: 2.2 children, a mortgage, cars on finance – only they’re not trappings, they’re necessities so you become a slave. You can harp on about being free but you’re not, you’re a slave. You can’t get out of the modern life. It’s all simple things but at that time you were still young enough and fit enough and free enough, if you got a job and earned two week’s money and went away - which meant losing your job - it didn’t matter because you’d look for another one when you got back. You’d have a lovely time in France and worry about it when you got back, but now with kids, a car and a mortgage that’s not possible.
“We weren’t grounded and level-headed, all we needed to know was that we had enough bait and tea bags to see us through; even petrol, money and food were close to being unimportant on some trips.
“I still do it today because I’m incredibly passionate about what I do, and a lot of people do what I do now, it’s not anything special or unique like I said earlier, I wasn’t the first to fish like this. Most of the masses go to the homogenised, plastic pay lakes but that’s what fits with their lifestyle and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you’ve got kids at home and you take a family holiday to Turkey for two weeks and only have a single week to fish abroad then of course you’re going to go to a known lake to catch some big ’uns.
“I’ve written it and said it a thousand times, but I live in a world where everybody says what I do is aspirational. Thirty years of people saying, ‘I’d love to do what you do but I only get one week a year and I need to catch so I’m going to Etang Des Munga’ – that’s it in a nutshell. If I was married and had limited time I’d be going to Etang Des Munga too, and I’d have a great time with forties, perhaps a fifty and maybe even a bigger one.
“I fished for years and years on those rivers before I had a forty, and that passion still burns strong in me. I started out pursuing amazing, quiet, untouched fishing and of course you always want to find that. The difference between 1987 and 2017 is, if you’d have sat me down in ‘87 and asked me how I think European fishing and my European fishing would be in thirty years time, for one I wouldn’t have believed I’d still be alive in thirty years time. And two, I wouldn’t have had a clue what it’s turned into. If I’d have known then, if I had a crystal ball to look into the future to see what it is now, I’d have given up 25 years ago. You think it’s going to go on forever but it can’t. Carp fishing’s grown and grown and carp anglers like to talk, mainly rubbish, but they talk freely so nothing is kept quiet. By writing about what I do, which I enjoy because I’m passionate and I want people to see the amazing things I see, but by doing that I’m killing it, and that’s the crux of the matter. Yes, there is still amazing fishing to be had out there, but when I was younger I hugely compromised everything because of naivety and a lack of being prepared, whereas now I’m having to compromise on the size of fish I angle for or try to find fishing like I originally found in the 80s. It’s a really bizarre position to be in.
“There’s a huge army of anglers wanting to do what they see the likes of myself doing. You mentioned fishing in the Alps earlier and within five years the place is overrun with anglers, and I don’t blame them one jot because fishing like that is absolutely incredible. Anglers from Holland, France, Belgium will all jump to it just as quick as the Brits so it becomes very busy, very quickly. It’s EXACTLY the same as all those years ago when I was privy to those Rod Hutchinson brace shots of the Dutch commons so I’m as guilty as the next man you could say.
“I get kids contact me regularly saying I’m going here or there what should we do, much like yourself a few years ago when you went to Belgium, and I freely gave up some lakes and river spots because I see in some of these kids what I felt back in those early years of travelling abroad. I’m not a bitter and jealous old man so I want them to experience what I did. For one, I’m not old, but I want people to run out of fuel, get lost, have incredible laughs with their mates, sample the food, have run-ins with dodgy locals and everything in between. I don’t want them to experience it at my expense though, but I’ve only been able to do what I do because fishing has paid for it.
“I still meet people now that have done very similar fishing to me with incredible results that I’ve never heard of or come across before, yet I’ve been at it for 30 years. I’ve not come across them because they’re not a famous angler, they’ve got their own source of income as a chippy or electrician so they can earn their money and quietly go about their fishing anonymously and tell nobody about it. I wish, no, I actually envy them because whereas everybody looks to me and says they’d like to be in my position, I’d love to be in Ryan’s (the chippy, from Cambridge) position because he’s been doing it for 30 years and never once had to compromise his fishing. Get yourself a trade, be anonymous and go and find yourself some special fishing and you’ll be able to do that forever.
“I went to a lake a friend told me about in 2002, there was no one there really and I told one Englishman on the promise he’d keep it to himself. Another friend went with him, who told his friend, who told his Dutch friend. Ten years on that’s one of the biggest circuit waters in France; how many others in my position leaked that information? I still go to these inspirational places and you will see pictures of some of these places, but each time I post them I know that I won’t be going back – it’s painful really, a massive crisis of conscience.
“I’m middle aged (not old), and I haven’t had a proper full time job, I’ve not put money away for my future and the fishing that I love is being destroyed at a rate that I can’t possibly catch up with. It forces me further afield, as it does lots of other anglers seeking the same as me too.
“If I’d have done what was expected of me and got a trade and kept everything quiet nobody would know about me, I could still be doing my own thing and I might even be a bit wealthy, who knows? If anybody can pull anything from that, especially the youngsters that are possessed like I was, don’t try and be a professional angler, don’t try and be a name in fishing, write about and ruin what you’ve found, do what your Dad told you and go and get a proper job and do it anonymously at your own pace, as and when you want, and you’ll do it forever – there’s no rush.”
You’ve gained a lot of European friends over the years. Is the social aspect and the friends made one of the reasons that keeps you going back again and again?
“Truthfully, no. I’m sociable but the sort of fishing I do means we might all meet at a lake for a barbecue and a night, but my fishing is generally not like that. Two people is generally a maximum because any more than two and you start to draw huge attention to yourselves. Again, it’s never me, I’m the bloke that doesn’t put a brolly up until dark, I’d rather sit in the car or something. I’ve fished a lot abroad and I’ve never been, touch wood, nicked for night fishing; for one I could never afford to lose my tackle. I don’t want to be caught and yet I go to places where Dutch anglers have town-like bivvy camps with markers everywhere, music blasting, the lot, ruining it for themselves and everyone that goes in the future. If your local lake got inundated with French anglers taking the mick, leaving rubbish on show and being loud, it would get your back up, so you have to think about how you portray yourself because it is important.”
Having night fished abroad for so many years, do you feel like you’ve taken liberties and perhaps broken the law by doing so? What’s your take on it?
“I think it’s a human rights infringement to say that you can’t wild camp. I think everybody should be allowed to taste a bit of freedom, a bit of life outside of modern standards and modern regulations. Who’s to say you can’t go off into the country, put a hammock up and have a fire with your girlfriend, mate or family? Who is to say you can’t do that? Well, I’ve always said you can go f*** yourself. I will fish where I like, when I like and if you can catch me, good luck to you, but if you can’t, I’m not going to rub your nose in it and I’m not going to be obvious doing it – you have to have ethics and etiquette.
“So yeah, I still fish all over Europe and technically I’ve broken the law but I’m careful and I’m respectful – that’s a big thing. I never leave any evidence that I’ve been there and I don’t chop stuff down to make a swim, I fit in where I can and I hide to the best of my ability. Like I said earlier, I’ve never had a confrontation that’s got physical.
“If you’re blatant and you start getting noticed the locals won’t have it, they feel like you’re taking the piss out of them. Cars damaged, and even burnt out, is becoming more common but if you’re stealthy enough it doesn’t get to that. It’s very quick for a lake to go from being a secret to having a heavy footfall with a single slip of the tongue. A couple of years ago it happened to me at a lake in the Alps, I went there and there were no anglers, the fishing was mind-bendingly good and if you could bottle it that was the ultimate for me, the best of the very best carp fishing ever. I told a couple of friends and six of them went for a month, a bloody month, of course they destroyed it. Now you get Polish, French, German, Dutch and the English there, that’s now destroyed forever because I don’t guard my information like a jealous man holding a secret – maybe I’m a fool for that.”
What has been, or can you single out the most memorable trip or part of a trip, and is it because of the captures or something else entirely?
“It has ALWAYS been about the adventure for me. I’ve done a lot of lovely fishing across France, but until I started to get older and other factors come into play. I loved fishing around Paris - all the industrial, difficult fishing but it was a mad atmosphere where you knew it shrieked of giants, everything about if, the location, the timing, just everything – it was magical, intoxicating even!
“I have to say in recent years it’s become as much about the place and location as it has the fishing. The two have become a marriage, like the Alpine stuff, when you start talking about sitting on a lake and waking up to your soul’s being fed because of the landscape in front of you. You wake up to vistas on a misty dawn with huge peaks in front of you staring you in the face, eagles circling – it’s like being on another planet.
“I could take you to lakes down the road that are typical, mythical English lakes with lily pads, weeping willows and snags in abundance but I could also take you to lakes in Austria and Switzerland where you’ll get out the car and you could sit there for a week, it’s timeless. That’s the true measure of magic when you lose time. And time, out of all of it, time is the enemy because I’ve never been a rich man, I’ve never had lots of disposable income and I’ve never had lots of time. So you’re talking trips of seven to ten day; ten’s a big trip for me.
“The real best of the best trips are when you run out of time before you even settle into the full magic of the experience, you know.”
What would the one bit of advice be, whether they’re 15-years-old planning their first trip or a newly-retired angler of 50 years going on another European adventure?
“My one bit of advice, because everywhere you look now you see 70lb, even 80lb mirrors from foreign commercials, which is meaningless, it’s a personal thing. You never hear me say I’ve caught my 100th forty-pounder or anything, I wouldn’t even know how many I’ve caught, carp fishing should never have been about competition. Recently you get these carp match, singles and pairs, and on the Continent encountering other carp anglers was a rare thing. Carp fishing should never have been competitive, it’s more about the social aspect and that’s what’s messed it in the first place, trying to catch one more than your mate and outdo the next angler.
“Really, it’s quite simple: a man proudly displaying his catch is madness because it’s an idiot animal that just has to eat to survive, you’re no great hunter for catching it – it should be about the journey, what you get from it personally!
“And what’s it done to me? Has it made me a better person? No. It’s given me a better understanding about other cultures and different parts of the world, and it’s given me lots, but moreover, it’s fed my soul. I’m a happy person, life’s about experience, so all I’d say is don’t judge what you’re doing by what anybody else is doing. If you’ve caught ten 60lbers from Les Teillatts I couldn’t give two… It means nothing to me, it is just about how you perceive what you do, and I’m still happy, because of my outlook, and this is the big thing with me, I’m still happy catching doubles down the canal as I am travelling 2,000 miles across Europe catching 30lb carp. It’s not about the end result, it’s about what you get from it, that’s it. All I can say is don’t judge, don’t comment and don’t belittle what people do because everybody’s journey is different.
“I’ve learnt an awful lot in recent times because my life’s not been a bed of roses. I got divorced, I lost my family, my home and didn’t see my daughter for a long time. You never know what’s round the corner in life, and most of it isn’t good, so if you find something good, something that feeds your soul and makes you happy and provides you with experience and fulfilment, then just do it.”