Poles in feud with britons over carp fishing
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DORKING, England -- Catching the crafty carp of England's lakes and rivers calls for uncommon guile and a deep respect for the enemy. Anglers speak with awe of famous slippery Cyprinus carpio, which can weigh over 50 pounds. Known by names such as "Heather the Leather" and "Chunky," these giant, potbellied fish are often recognizable from their battle scars. Only lucky anglers have managed to hook, and then release, them.
These are not koi, the ornamental orange carp that swim in many a Chinese restaurant fish tank. "These carp are cunning old souls -- they have seen it all," says angler Greg Whitehead.
That is, everything but hungry Polish fishermen armed with nets, wet suits and even the occasional spear gun.
Unlike Britons, to whom carp are inedible bottom feeders fit only for sport, Poles and other Eastern Europeans eat them as a matter of culinary tradition. And many of the half million Poles who have streamed into Britain in recent years love to serve them on Christmas Eve -- starting with a nice fish head soup.
The Poles would much prefer to buy their fish at market. Trouble is, British fishmongers no longer mong it.
"If you can show us (Poles) where to buy, we are not fishing," says Jacek Sulkowski, 36 years old, a former chef for the Polish Parliament, who now cooks at the Sow & Pigs pub in Thundridge, a village 15 miles north of London. One national chain of supermarkets, Sainsbury's, plans to carry carp for the holidays in some locations. The fish are also available at a some specialty shops, and at least one Polish Web site.
The culture clash threatens to escalate as Britain's river banks become increasingly crowded. In many places the Poles' heavy fishing artillery isn't welcome. "It's a sore point with local anglers when they see (Poles) walking the banks with spear guns and nets," says Peter Arnold, proprietor of Pro-Angling, a bait and tackle store north of London.
While carp can be taken legally from English rivers and streams, the juiciest specimens are usually found on private property. They swim in well-stocked private lakes where people pay anywhere from $15 to $40 a day to tangle with them, snap a photo and then throw them back.
This is a confusing state of affairs for those newly arrived from the East, says David de Vere, owner of Bury Hill Fisheries in Dorking, 20 miles south of London. He recently invested nearly $200,000 to stock a members-only pond with fewer than 100 carp weighing more than 20 pounds each. "So you can see why people get upset at the idea of somebody putting them on their dinner table," says Mr. De Vere. "It's just not done here."
Tony Pearson, owner of several fisheries in county Essex, says he has caught people stealing carp. He has taken the radical step of banning all Eastern Europeans from his lakes. He is especially watchful of who comes and goes during the run-up to Christmas. "I'm not a racist, mind you, but I haven't got all day to police these blokes," says the 59-year-old.
Mr. Pearson and other anglers complain that Polish fishermen flout local rules by using nets that trap fish by their gills, long fixed lines with multiple hooks and coming at night to nick fish when guards are asleep.
Fishing columnist and television and radio personality Keith Arthur says the issue isn't about nationality. "I don't care if someone's in a spacesuit and comes from Mars," he says. "They just shouldn't take fish."
Jacek Dolata, a 40-year-old Volvo truck mechanic who came from Poland two years ago, says he only fishes legally. "Is crazy to pay money to fish and not keep fish!" says Mr. Dolata. "But this is the English way."
While the English used to eat carp, the practice died decades ago, as living standards -- and diets -- improved. A bucolic love of fieldcraft is all that remains. As the narrator of George Orwell's 1939 novel "Coming Up for Air" put it: "If you gave me the choice of having any woman you care to name, but I mean any woman, or catching a ten-pound carp, the carp would win every time."
One recent afternoon, Sam Knight demonstrated the British version of carp love. The 25-year-old wrapped a baseball-size bag of live red maggots and specially made fluorescent-yellow pineapple paste around a hook in the hopes of tempting the palette of The Ghost, a 32-pound carp at Bury Hill. Mr. Knight has three super-light rods made of carbon fixed to electronic sensors. If the great fish bites, he'll be buzzed out of slumber in his camouflaged, lakeside bivouac.
"It is a bit mad, an addiction, I know," says the semi-pro angler, who also writes for Carp-Talk, a glossy magazine that competes with Carp Addict and a raft of other British magazines devoted to the fish. "At least I don't drink or smoke."
Another angler, English plumber Gordon Beaney says he likes to show photos of his prize catches to newly arrived Polish workers. "They ask me, 'You eat carp?'" he says. "They think I'm insane when I tell them 'of course not.'"
To Mr. Sulkowski, the Polish cook, carp tastes better than a Christmas goose or turkey. That view varies wildly. As one Victorian writer opined: "Imagine a stale, musty (bed) out of some old hospital dipped in strong sewage and you have some idea of it."
Mr. Sulkowski concedes that the fish have a "horrible smell," but advises not to knock it until you try it. Traditionally, Polish cooks keep the carp alive in the family bathtub for a couple days before Christmas to cleanse them of their muddy habitat. To further blunt the smell, he feeds each carp a teaspoon of sugar.
Mr. Sulkowski, for one, won't be fishing at Christmas this year. Nor will he be stuck eating salmon, like last year. His English is now good enough to order food for the pub where he works. On the phone with a fish wholesaler one recent afternoon, he put in the Christmas orders -- and added a personal request for carp. "I pay cash, OK?" he said.
The carp, he was told, will come from France.
First Published December 20, 2006 12:00 am