Germans make new science of pursuit of the wily carp


WORFELDEN, Germany -- Sven Heininger, the dashing young guru of German carp fishing, has no patience with the lazy anglers who still go after carp the old way.

"The old way," he says, "is to take a heavy rod, put a potato on the hook, or a mouse, then throw it into deep water and wait."

Nor does Mr. Heininger, author of "Carp Talk" and its sequel, "Carp Talk 2," have anything good to say about anglers who cheat by pouring bleach into rivals' fishing waters.

Can such passions really be inspired by the humble carp? The scaly glutton that wallows like a hog in muddy water? The fish as sporting as an overgrown goldfish and as tasty as an oily rag?

Disdained by American anglers, the carp has long held an attraction for Europeans, as attested by legions of carp clubs and magazines. But only in recent years has European carp fishing moved to a higher level of expertise, technique and, sometimes, overzealous competition. And the cult of the carp is growing.

The current issue of Germany's top fishing magazine, the monthly Fisch & Fang, features carp angling in two of its four main stories, including Mr. Heininger's review of five top spots for catching carp in France. The more proletarian Angel Woche recently weighed in with a cover story about the "Karpfen Krieg!" -- or "Carp War!" -- among the sport's bleach-pouring cheaters.

Perhaps the most prestigious certification of carp fishing's new status was a recent article in Der Spiegel, Germany's leading news magazine.

"Four pounds? Eight pounds? Carp hunters can only laugh at such beginner's sizes," Der Spiegel said. "They fight with cement-heavy giants. . . . They sleep on carp chairs, sit on carp stools and are ready with carp nets."

Out there fighting the cement-heavy giants with the best of them is Mr. Heininger, 23, of Worfelden, a village just south of Frankfurt. He is among a select group of Europe's heralded carp tacticians, including, among others, Kevin Maddocks of Britain, Didier Cottin of France and Paul van Beld of Belgium.

Each is a practitioner of a fishing style revolving around a hard ball of home-baked bait called the "boilie," a British innovation now favored by carp fishermen across the continent. Their carp fishing philosophy is simple: The bigger, the better.

"The carp is the fish in our lakes and rivers which fights very hard," Mr. Heininger says. "It is not so easy to catch them sometimes."

The boilie wasn't an overnight sensation.

"At first, lots of anglers made jokes about the boilies," Mr. Heininger says. "They said it was stupid. But after a time, they started seeing the photos in the magazines of people with the big fish, and then it started to become popular."

Like any hobby that gradually becomes more sophisticated, big-time carp fishing now means buying all sorts of expensive gear -- huge carp nets and carp mats for landing them with care, "baitrunner" reels, and, for night fishing, sleeping/fishing chairs and electronic "bite indicators" in case you've nodded off. You can easily spend $2,000 becoming the compleat carp angler.

Then there are the boilies, hardened dough balls little more than a half-inch in diameter, available in flavors from strawberry to crawfish. With about 300 boilies per pound, they seem fairly cheap at about $6 a pound. After all, how many boilies can a carp eat?

A lot, it seems, especially if you're going to "prepare the swim," as top carpers like to do for a serious fishing expedition.

First they scout the lake, looking for the spots where carp gather. Mr. Heininger made such a circuit recently at his favorite local fishing hole, a small oval lake about eight miles from his home, within sight of the banks of the Rhine.

It was too warm that day for the carp to have much appetite, he said, although later he cast a few boilies into the water just to make sure (he was right, there wasn't a nibble). So, he strolled a lakeside path through sweet-smelling clover and bright red poppies, watching carefully for carp while a great blue heron eyed him warily from the opposite bank.

He pointed to a shallow bed of water lilies where two big carp, perhaps 30 pounds apiece, flapped languidly beneath the surface like primeval dreadnoughts.

Farther on, at a shallow shelf, were two carp monstrous as small crocodiles, so big that their backs broke the surface as they basked in the morning sun. "That one there," said Mr. Heininger, pointing to the larger one, "is about 50 pounds."

Once carp fishermen find a popular "swim," they spend the next three to five days dosing the water with thousands of boilies, letting the fish eat hearty while working up an appetite for more. This is when baking your own boilies (Mr. Heininger's books have recipes) starts to seem like a good idea, because otherwise a five-day preparation can require up to $200 worth of boilies.

The day after the priming is finished, you rig a boilie next to a hook, cast it gently, let it sink to the bottom, then wait for a bite from the big carp that for years were too wise to strike at mice and potatoes.

If the technique seems unsporting, you might compare it to the HTC way deep-sea fishermen lay down long, slimy "chum lines" to attract big fish.

Besides, it's a whole lot more sporting than spoiling the water with bleach or poison, as some overzealous fishermen have done to sabotage the preparations of their rivals.

"I sometimes fish at the River Neckar, and there are a lot of anglers who do this," he says. "They don't like it when other anglers catch all the good fish. But I don't understand them. They are fighting with other anglers, instead of with the fish."

One Neckar angler caught in the act received the ultimate punishment for a German carp angler. After lengthy deliberations, his village fishing club voted to expel him.

Once a carp is landed, the ritual is virtually the same for every angler. They weigh the fish, snap its photo, and ease it back into the water. They log the photo and all the particulars -- time, date, weather, location -- in a scrapbook. Mr. Heininger's most recent album holds a year's worth of ugly carp faces and scaly bodies, glistening with the waters of Germany, France and other parts of Europe.

Such habits make for repeat performances. In the past year, Mr. Heininger has caught his lake's 50-pound giant three times. The largest carp caught in Germany, a 56-pounder nicknamed "Big Ben," has been landed by two anglers.

Mr. Heininger supports his fishing with his magazine articles, sales of his carp books, and with a mail-order bait and tackle business specializing in carp tackle.

Meanwhile, he's working on an engineering degree. When that's completed, he says, he'll give up the bait business for good.

But he won't ever give up fishing, nor his pursuit of ever-larger carp.

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