Tracking a Paw Print – Scotland’s Largest Mirror Carp
Tracking a Paw Print – by Kieran Hopkinson
It’s funny how some things work out. After a few years living in Denmark, I returned to Scotland in October 2018 with the intention of quickly leaving again. I was planning to move in with my girlfriend in Holland, but with suitable Dutch jobs proving hard to come by, my stay in Scotland ended up being much longer than planned. Frustratingly, it felt like my whole life had been put on hold, but the delay at least offered me a chance to chase some of the fishing-related dreams I’d put aside a few years earlier.
One of those dreams was to fish a neglected gravel quarry where my mate Paul had caught a dirty great mirror known as Paw Print back in 2013. It was Scotland’s first mirror to top thirty pounds and there were also a few others in there on the missing list, including a big old common that had always been a few pounds heavier than Paw Print, way back when they had been mere twenties.
The Quarry had been fished by some very good anglers since Paul’s successful campaign, but after a few big summer floods and too many otter sightings, the big carp scene seemed to have lost interest and drifted on, perhaps assuming the big one to have perished one way or another. A few upper doubles had been caught since and an angler had lost a heavy fish in 2016, but nobody I talked to seemed to have seen the big one for some time.
It’s peculiar, but the carp in this pit has a bit of a reputation for rarely giving themselves away – hardly ever fizzing, showing, or basking in the sunshine. All things considered, they’re just carp and they shouldn’t behave too differently from any other water, but I think certain environmental aspects of the Quarry allowed these ones to live out their lives relatively unnoticed. There was probably only five carp in there which made the Quarry hard as nails, and the notorious head of big boilie-eating bream made it impossible to keep three rods fishing at times. The water was very deep, seemed to hold a permanent thermocline, and was regularly stained by tannins that made visibility poor. There was also very little information to go by, save a few hushed whispers that the big one might still be around.
The lows can vastly outweigh the highs when rising to a challenge as tough like this, and I can understand why a lot of people struggle to get a buzz when their next bite from a carp could be over a year away. Deciding to do your own thing can be hard, especially when it goes against the consensus of the wider angling community, but as this story will justify, it might just pay off for you. For me, Paul’s photographs of that big male fish were all the motivation I needed, and I was fortunate to have the Quarry entirely to myself. In fact, I never met another carp angler down there!
I opted to prime a few spots through the early spring of 2019. Before putting any bait out each week, I’d flick a bare lead out to feel for any changes on the lake bed. Sure enough, one spot was more promising than the rest, with the tell-tale resistance of shallow silt transitioning to a positive judder of cleared gravel within the first few weeks. It was a tricky-to-hit margin spot along a wildly overgrown bank where nobody went, offering some sanctuary for the fish to feed freely with minimal disturbance. I hadn’t seen any carp yet but decided to drop my other spots and concentrate all my efforts here anyway.
I soon figured that the hordes of bream were going to be a problem, so I decided to scale everything up. I stocked up with 24mm boilies and tipped all my hookbaits snowman-style with 16mm pop-ups, presented on size two hooks. Considering I was after a few upper doubles, the odd twenty, and possibly a thirty, this might seem crude but believe me, if a five pound bream can hang itself on that lot, the carp won’t be an issue!
When I finally fished my baited spot some six weeks later, my heart sank as the Quarry lived up to its stubborn reputation and I pulled in bream after bream. The carp might have been about, but I knew I’d struggle to get a pick-up with this much disturbance and recasting throughout the night.
I persisted for a few sessions with only slabs coming my way, then suddenly it seemed that even they had sussed me. Overnight, the bites dried up entirely and after a few more weeks of sustained baiting and blank nights, I skipped my rigs in one morning to find the leads smelling sour. Clearly there was some rotten bait about, and my campaign had been a lost cause.
I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow account of the remainder of 2019, but in short, the Quarry stood true to its ill fame of holding its secrets close to its chest. I’d had very few sightings of carp, Paw Print had remained elusive to me and I never really felt close to achieving anything. The final straw came when I woke up one October morning to find the river next door had burst its banks, the water was lapping under my bedchair and my rods were completely submerged! I retrieved all my kit and escaped over the flooded bridge between the Quarry and the car park, fighting to keep the barrow upright in the flow. Following up this disastrous trip with a blank week in France, I’d really had enough and I ended the year without a catching a single carp.
I spent the winter licking my wounds and trying to find the drive to continue my campaign, but I was struggling to find any positives from my year’s angling. The long drives, the haul from the car park and only bream to show for my efforts had worn me down. I’d seen more otters than carp down there and my dream couldn’t feel any more intangible. But come the spring, broken or not, I knew I’d step back up to the challenge. Nothing can ever be so cruel that it erases the buzz completely, after all, it might only take one bite!
The days were beginning to warm and like everyone else in the world, I had high hopes for the spring of 2020, but as the global pandemic swept over us like some weirdly actionless thriller movie, any chance of fishing was off the cards for everyone. I’m sure we all felt the same desperation to scratch that carp fishing itch and I was climbing the walls to escape the monotony of the work-from-home lifestyle that was being forced upon us. Then when Scotland’s lockdown finally eased and fishing was permitted again, they spawned all across the country!
I visited the Quarry that day anyway, in the hope of seeing Paw Print and some of the pit’s other residents. As it turned out there was no sign of them spawning, but I did spot a large bow-wave running along the far margin reeds, not too far from the spot I’d baited the year before. Knowing that area well, I had been considering an alternative line angle to try and improve my chances there. The spot was only fishable from one peg, which involved an 80 yard cast over deep water to a steep sloping margin, so I figured I’d have to create my own swim in the jungle of the far bank. This way I could opt for fluorocarbon mainline and let it drape over the marginal contours, rather than having a tight line leaving the spot at an awkward angle. Creating a swim on the far bank wouldn’t be an easy feat given the obstacles in getting over there, but sometimes you’ve just got to go the extra mile and get in there after them.
A few weeks later, with spawning well and truly over, I was well prepared for my next attempt. It was nearly midsummer and with a low-pressure system rolling its way across the Atlantic and new moon due that weekend, I just had that visceral sense that things were falling in my favour. With extra time booked off work, I could afford to spend up to four nights in my new swim and I just couldn’t wait to get down there.
As I alluded to earlier, getting to the new swim was a mission in itself. There was barely a rabbit run to follow on that far bank and the final push meant wading through a waist-deep swamp with all my gear held above my head. All that effort for better line lay! I think all serious anglers possess a certain boyhood spirit to just get stuck in, try new things, not worry about getting wet or dirty, then simply shrug it off when it doesn’t go to plan. That was my attitude about this trip, anyway.
Reaching the swim, I erected the brolly amongst the nettles and cow parsley and cleared enough space between the reeds to squeeze three rods out. Using a bare lead, I probed my old spot from the previous year. There were some fresh weed and debris about, but the tiniest dinner plate of gravel remained detectible to my right. I carefully prepped a snowman rig – the usual 24mm bottom bait topped with the smelliest Hell pop up in the tub – and swung it out. The spot was only an underarm flick away but it was very tight, so it took a few attempts before I got the drop I wanted. The other rods didn’t go out as sweet but considering the spot had only seen a few scatterings of bait this year, I was just glad to know they weren’t hung up in the weed.
I’d just lowered in the final rod when I became aware of a growing clamour around the pit – rowdy voices and the deep throbbing of drum and bass. Over the next hour, masses of kids descended on the opposite bank and I realised that the Quarry had been chosen for a lockdown rave that weekend.
Being well hidden in the foliage of the far bank, I kept my head down and watched as hundreds of alcohol-fuelled teens wearing nought but swimsuits practically destroyed Peg 6. The police turned up at one point, but it didn’t seem to make any difference and the party raged on. To my relief, the music, screaming and sound of smashing glass ebbed away as darkness fell, and by midnight the Quarry was silent once again. The tranquillity didn’t last that long though, as one of my carefully set traps was promptly ruined by a bream.
At around three in the morning, I was awoken by another bream on the right-hand rod. Slipping into my waders, I made my way through the foliage and wound in the deadweight. As was routine, I unhooked it in the margin and looped on a fresh rig, but I was more frustrated than usual as this was the rod I had most confident in. I expected some drama in finding the tiny gravel spot in the dark, but as luck would have it, the lead cracked down hard on the first attempt and I knew everything was presented as best it could.
I couldn’t see the water from under the brolly, so I made a strong coffee and shuffled into a position where I could watch the dawn break across the Quarry. As was the norm, a few bream rolled at first light, but there was no sign of carp anywhere. I had another three nights ahead of me, but I could feel in the pit of my stomach that the excitement that had kept me going for weeks was fading. Maybe it had been built upon false confidence and it wasn’t meant to be after all? For all my efforts, I hadn’t even been awarded a glimpse of my target fish during my campaign and for all I knew, Paw Print could have passed away years ago.
The weather was starting to deteriorate as dark clouds rolled overhead and swathes of warm south-westerly rain lashed my face. Rather than staying up and waiting for the impossible to happen, I retired to the sack feeling a little deflated.
But then it just happened. At around 9am, a buzzer broke into a relentless warble that had me plunging through the reedbeds towards the rod on the little gravel patch. On picking up the rod I was nearly flat-rodded as I watched a trail of bubbles racing away, more than 40 yards from the spot. With the line still tearing off a tight clutch, there was no way this was just another bream.
As I managed to slow the charge, the fish turned right and kited towards the margins at a serious speed before locking up solid in some weed. After waiting over a year for this moment, there was no way I was letting it get away so I grabbed the net, threw it out into the margins and plunged in after it, keeping tension on the line as I waded towards the fish.
Despite it being weeded up in over 12ft of water, I could wade to within a rod length and get the rod tip directly over the culprit. I’d hoped the more direct contact would improve the situation, but after five minutes, I hadn’t felt so much as a knock on the rod tip and I feared it had shed the hook into some unseen snag. Eventually, after some persistent pressure, I could feel the weed beginning to give and one deep head shake confirmed there was still something on the end. The weed was losing its grip and I was painstakingly gaining some line.
When the leadcore finally broke the surface and the fish could only be a few feet below, it seemed to find a whole new lease of life. The water erupted on front of me as it attempted to dive back down into the weed, then charging behind me and up the margins before locking itself up once again in the next weedbed. This time I felt I was in control as I was able to wade across the shelf towards the fizzing mass of weed and sliced reed stems. With a gentle tug, the carp buoyed to the surface and I got my first glimpse of a deep, dark flank of a mirror. By the sheer length of this creature alone, I knew exactly which one it was.
The battle raged on for what felt like an eternity. He had found open water, stayed deep and plodded about in the manner that big fish do for another twenty minutes. Nevertheless, my heart was in my mouth the whole time and it took several attempts and a few litres of water down my chesties before I finally managed to lift the net around his huge frame.
With a sigh of relief, I let the rod handle sink into the water as I peered down into the mesh. Still tense and bristling with anger, the big male mirror made a few desperate lunges into the corner of the net, but it was all over. I was sodden and the rain was still falling, but I didn’t care – against all the odds, Paw Print was mine. I looked to the sky, brushing my unruly lockdown fringe from my eyes as I drank in the emotions. It had been seven years since his last mistake, yet somehow he’d dropped his guard enough for me to outsmart him today.
Having staked the net out in the margins, I made a few phone calls to some friends who would understand my excitement. There were still coronavirus restrictions about meeting in groups, so rather than bring a friend down, I asked my dad to do the pictures for me. It was Fathers Day, so I gave him a pretty good present in my opinion! I had bought myself an hour until he’d arrive, so I climbed under the brolly, fired up the stove and called Paul, Paw Print’s last captor. As I was excitedly retelling the story, my left-hand rod suddenly went into meltdown as a carp charged off towards the centre of the pit – nothing for 18 months, then two in a morning? Surely not!
After a spirited battle, a cool black common with a punctuated dorsal was wallowing on the surface in front of me. I only had one net, and that was already occupied by the biggest fish of my life, so I very gingerly shuffled the common over one corner of the net cord and found myself with two Quarry carp side-by-side. It actually spat the hook out moments later, probably a testament to my apprehensions about sinking the net too far. It was a twenty and a huge fish for Scotland in its own right, but it was dwarfed by the big old mirror it rubbed shoulders with.
Dad arrived shortly after with the family and dog in tow. With the extra hands, the photography process went smoothly and we soon had the common dealt with and safely returned – 22lb 4oz, if I remember correctly! After a quick resorting of the scales and slings, we rolled down the net and lifted the big one onto the mat. We gasped as I unfolded the mesh and we got our first proper look at his full grandeur. Besides looking every ounce of thirty pounds, he had deep bronze shoulders, clean, tawny flanks, teddy bear eyes and a big old paddle tail.
As we hoisted him up for the weighing, the scales were facing away from me and I was astounded to hear my dad read out “35… 36 maybe? Just shy of 36!” A thirty, I had suspected, but not an upper thirty! This kind of weight would not only make him Scotland’s largest mirror carp again but also the second largest fish in the country! Sure enough, we settled on 35lb 14oz – a truly astonishing weight for a Scottish carp.
We got the photos done and before I knew it, I was cradling him in the same margins where he’d beat me up just a short time earlier. With a moment’s respite and a few powerful thrusts of his muscular flanks, he charged off angry as ever, leaving me soaked through and grinning like a madman in the rain.
It’s funny how some things play out. I’d been looking for an excuse to move to the Netherlands for a while and had recently decided to just get over there and worry about my career later. Coincidentally, my capture of Paw Print came just two months before moving. Under no illusions, things just fell my way very nicely and had I been more successful in other aspects of my life, this might not have happened. I feel incredibly lucky to have made acquaintance with one of Scotland’s largest. The beauty, however, is that anyone can be as lucky as I was!