In some form or other, what was to become ‘Alton Towers’ has been part of the landscape of the Staffordshire Moorlands for many years. Originally occupied as early as the 1st century BC as an Iron Age settlement, it was then disused until the first early fort was constructed around 700 AD by King Ceolred of Mercia. The first Earl of Shrewsbury, Roger de Montgomerie, acquired the title in 1074 as a principal counsellor in the court of William the Conqueror. The title was forfeited in 1102 by the Third Earl as a result of rebellion only to be resurrected in 1442 for John Talbot who resided at the present site from 1406. The Alton Towers that most of us know today was a result of the foresight of the Fifteenth Earl, Charles Talbot who began to develop the estate at the turn of the nineteenth century. By the time that it was finished in 1856, the existing seat of the Earl’s at Heythrop had been destroyed by fire and the title moved to Alton. The progression towards the theme park of today began in the mid 1800’s as the gardens were opened to the public to raise funds to maintain the estate.
The history of Alton Towers is mired in myth and legend; the story of the Chained Oak continues to spellbind and delight as the tale is told in ‘Hex’, a modern day park experience. The Lady in Black is still said to haunt the upper floors and corridors of the main house and numerous other apparitions are recorded in past accounts. While researching the story of the house and gardens, and, more specifically, the many lakes and pools which can be found throughout the site, I was delighted to find that the boating lake on the lawns in front of the Towers is just one of several that have been stocked with original English carp! As an angler, this needed investigating! Where did they come from? Who had stocked them? Why are they there? How big are they? More importantly, can I fish for them?!
I had seen the carp in the lake during my many ‘fun’ visits to Alton Towers, but had never noticed anyone actually fishing for them. Numerous telephone calls had drawn a blank as it became obvious that getting definitive answers was going to be almost impossible. I work locally to the Towers, and know many of the staff employed there so I started my investigations close to home; my step daughter operates one of the rides during the season, so I set her the task of obtaining a ‘name’ to find out more. However, trying to get a teenager to concentrate on anything other than appearance and partying proved impossible so another approach was necessary..... A chance conversation with a colleague turned up the possibility of a contact that could help, so I gave Alton Towers a ring, hoping to hear some good news. The signs were promising; if I emailed the information I needed, then this could be passed on to another department who “....I’m sure may be able to help.” I was becoming more hopeful that I would be able to speak to someone who could give me permission to cast a bait in the direction of what was becoming an obsession!
A few weeks later, I received word that a meeting could be arranged to discuss the matter. Fishing the lakes at Alton Towers is not allowed at all to members of the general public after problems with irresponsible anglers in the past so I was unsure why I was being invited to set out my idea for a magazine feature about the mysterious inhabitants of the lake. A very curious manager received my queries with enthusiasm and I was then directed to ‘the man’ with the power to grant my request! Further conference then amazingly he granted me permission to fish the lake “...for one day only!” To say I was pleased was an understatement, and I rapidly recruited a friend, Chris Watson, (Wotto) to assist in taking photographs and planning for the session.
Arriving at the security lodge, we had arranged to meet Steve who would take us on to the site and brief us on the expansion of the gardens, the construction of the pools and the stocking of the fish. The security staff had no knowledge of the proposed article, had no idea we were expected, and, sadly had no intention of letting us in! The threat of commercial espionage regarding the exciting new ride attraction for the 2010 season was high, and no spy was going to break the news to the outside world! Nightmare! An impassioned plea to telephone Steve was met with “...he’s not on site, I would know, and I’ve not seen him” resulted in two grown men weeping on bended knee until the gate guardian relented and made the call. Minutes later, Steve arrived at the gate and shepherded us past the sentries.... we had a pass and we felt like extras from ‘The Great Escape’! Following him towards the main lake, it was astonishing to see how empty the park is when it’s closed for the season; although there were many staff busily maintaining and cleaning the rides and buildings, to see no ‘people’ seemed very surreal.
Couscous, pellet and tuna...yum!
Steve made an excellent host and quickly told us of the stocking of the fish some twenty five years ago by himself and his team after being offered the carp from a reputable source. Thinking they would only add to the ecology of the waters, they were added along with perch, tench and roach with the idea that a stable, self stocking environment would result. The carp entered as ‘fingerlings’ and we were told that the biggest now weighed in at over 30 pounds, having grown chubby on a diet of hot dog sausage and doughnuts thrown in by visitors over the next few years. With that in mind, (and having thought about it previously) I had decided against a strictly boilie approach and opted for hot dog sausages or cous cous and pellets. Chris however had complete faith in his pepparami boilies and they were to be his main attack.
We picked a spot in the shadow of one the huge established pine trees nearest the dam end. The wind was pushing into this end of the lake, but from over our backs which made the fishing far more comfortable for us. The carp are often seen in the summer months feeding in this area on titbits lobbed in by visitors, and, as the cold snap had not yet happened, we gambled on a few fish still being in this part of the lake. As we tackled up, Chris pointed out a fish crashing towards the centre of the pool and quickly cast towards it; his second bait soon followed into the gulley which Steve had earlier described. I was still watching the water for signs of fish when Chris’s left hand alarm warbled off to indicate a run. This was within 10 minutes of baits hitting the water!! A short but energetic fight resulted in a sturdy low double mirror carp lying safely in the net. Obligatory photos were taken and the fish returned. A good start....
Chubby double for Chris
Meanwhile, I had sneaked quietly across the raised path at the base of the bridge to drop in a few handfuls of bait in an effort to get some carp feeding. The night before our session, I’d prepared my (not now) secret weapon; cous cous. Mixed using boiling water into which black treacle had been dissolved, it gives the cous cous a sweet scent which carp love. A kilo of 2mm feed pellets and two tins of tuna in sunflower oil completed the concoction which was also coloured using Sonubaits black dye. It gives a loose feed ideal for close range fishing to get the fish digging about a bit and feeding confidently. My rig comprised 2’ of rig tubing, a 2oz square lead on a clip and then a size 10 Korda Kurve shank tied to 5” of A.C.E. camo core coated hook link; only the hair and 2” before the hook had the coating stripped back and was tied KD style to make the hook turn efficiently. The mainline I’m using this season is 12lb A.C.E. ‘Velocity’; it’s camouflaged and has great knot strength so I have full confidence in it. I then lowered my baited rig over the top and then opened the bail arm and walked back to my peg. By walking my rig to the baited area, I was guaranteed to put the trap exactly where I wanted without risking a cast into the surrounding trees or disturbing the water too much. Allowing the line to sink, I placed the rod in the rest and set the alarm. My second rig again had 2’ of rig tubing, but this time a large run ring allowed my lead to run freely up to a tulip bead which protected the hook link swivel. Hook link this time was from the ‘Darkside’ stable, a braid known as ‘Black Mamba’, again tied to a size 10 Kurve shank. Hook bait on both rods was a fifty pence sized chunk of Matteson’s smoked pork sausage.
With both rods settled, Chris was getting odd bleeps as fish moved over the baits, so we were both sure we would catch other fish during the day. Fifteen minutes after Chris had landed the first fish, my right hand rod which had been dropped over my baited patch, gave out a couple of twitches before the hanger stopped. A sharp drop back resulted in me lifting the rod into my first of the day; another mirror, this time around 14lbs. One each after half an hour, surely time for a cuppa? No chance. Chris hit his second fish, our third mirror of the day weighing in at 13lbs. Three doubles in our first hour fishing! In November! My next fish picked up the sausage hook bait and shot under the trees on the far bank. No problem, I could walk across the path again and free it from above. As I walked to the far end, I was astonished to see several large tails waving near the surface as hungry carp snaffled my loose feed. Quickly freeing my hooked fish, I steered it away from the swim before getting a smashing 16lb 2oz chunk on the mat. Photographed and returned, we thought it would be a good idea to take all baits out of the water to discuss our attack on the carp which we could see stirring the bottom up as they rooted the cous cous up.
After our first brew (at last!), both of us stealthily crouched as close as we dared to the feeding fish. With just a rod each, a landing net, unhooking mat and a bucket of feed between us, we swung baited hooks amongst them. Holding the line in our fingers, both of us could feel the tension rise as big carp cruised in front of us looking for food. My line went tight and was snatched from fingers as a shiny common engulfed the bait; ‘Hook and hold’ was the order of the day to prevent the fish reaching the sanctuary of a tree branch we could see sticking up out the water. The thing is, the carp weren’t much on that game and pulled back just as hard! 10 minutes of arm ache gained me a pristine lump of around 13lbs. Resting the swim for a short while, we could see the fish approach the area once more and agreed to try again. Surely we couldn’t keep getting away with it?
A big mirror slowly mooched over to my hook bait and hovered above it; “...take it! Go on! Go on! Ooh! Nearly....” Not this time, but I could see other fish behind it which were feeding. Quickly, a second fish drifted up to the sausage and slurped it in! As soon as the hook point pricked the bottom lip, it turned and bolted into deeper water. At extremely close range, less than 5 feet away, trying to stop a carp doing what it wants is exciting stuff! Burying the rod tip under water, a bit of side strain got the fish away from any problems and up to the surface. I could see that this was slightly bigger than the previous fish so I was looking forward to landing it. Eventually, it was ready to be netted and it proved to be the biggest of the day at 18lbs 5ozs. A beautiful ‘starburst’ mirror in perfect condition with hardly a mark on her. Slipping back into the water, she soaked me with a flick of the tail and sank away into the depths.
Clint with 18lbs 5ozs of sausage muncher!
We managed to take another 4 fish by touch ledgering right under the rod tips which is an exhilarating way to catch carp. All of the fish we caught except a beautiful Koi were double figure, immaculate carp in fantastic condition and all fought extremely hard. Things quietened down after a couple of hours and we couldn’t get them feeding again, so it was back for another cuppa and a rethink. We still hadn’t really seen anything moving in the main part of the lake, and a walk around didn’t raise our spirits any. The wind was causing a few problems as it disturbed our lines and made the issue of spotting fish almost impossible. The last hour or so had given no bites to either of us, so, with Chris minding the rods, I risked another wander over to the baited area on the far side. I was stunned to see a large common had my bait in its mouth and was trying to free itself of the hook by using my lead as a lever! I’ve never seen this happen although I’ve heard about it and I’ve always wondered just how much goes on under water that the carp angler knows nothing about. I hadn’t had so much as a single bleep on my alarm to indicate anything was around the baits, let alone had actually picked one up! Unable to eject the hook, the fish then tried to get around a timber snag, but as soon as it felt the weight of the lead, it returned to its original position, all without a single bleep!! I suppose it moved around an area about 2’ across, mainly turning within its own body length, and never lifted the lead once. Racing back over to Chris, I lifted into the fish only to immediately lose it as the hook released. Having seen the fish, I was a bit gutted to say the least......
Between us, we were struggling; the wind had picked up to the point where fishing becomes difficult. The alarms and swingers were constantly being battered by the wind giving off false bites and bleeps, and the addition of extra weights didn’t help. Sitting it out for a bit was the only option, so another cuppa and some food went down very well whilst we pondered our next move. The daylight was fading fast as we put the baits back out, and we prepared for another hour before we had to pack up. The final take of the day consisted of a single bleep, drop an inch, single bleep so I struck into the bite, sweeping the rod high in the air to lift around 100 yards of line and set the hook. I could feel a fish but knew it wasn’t a carp so carefully teased the fish back towards me; it felt ‘funny’ and at first I thought I might have foul hooked a welly or similar. I was very pleased to see a dinky perch hanging onto the bait, with the shell of a freshwater mussel on the line in front of it. I’d obviously dragged the main line over a bed of molluscs, but never expected to land one! Apparently the mussels had been introduced over 100 years ago as a food source for the main house and were still thriving.
It proved to be the final fish of the day, and our finished tally of 12 carp between us was an excellent result on a session made harder by the weather. I always try to learn something from every days fishing, and this session definitely gave me lots to consider. The use of highly developed boilies is something that many carp anglers swear by and often look no further, expecting the baits to catch carp because of the name on the packaging, but on our day, if we hadn’t contemplated the fact that the carp in this lake are used to picking up visitors food scraps then we would have done very little. A bit of forethought and pre-planning had made all the difference; ten fish fell to hot dog sausage and only two came to boilies. All the baits were presented in a similar area on similar rigs, so the ONLY variable was the BAIT! The other instance that gave me something to think about was seeing a good fish trying to release the hook after picking up the bait. It proved to me that my bite indication (and probably yours) isn’t as sensitive as I thought and it has room for improvement!
The staff at Alton Towers made our day a success so I’d like to offer my appreciation. We had a great day in extraordinary surroundings and we caught some cracking carp. I’ve also been asked remind anglers that the lakes are unfortunately not open to the public for fishing and all enquiries will be politely refused. I would also like to say a special thank you to Steve who gave us the best information and pointed us to the right spot and keeps the Towers estate looking fantastic for people to enjoy. Next time you visit the North West’s premier theme park and resort, take a look in the lakes. You never know what you’ll see!
Clint Walker, 2010