We catch up with the 1990s Sparsholt College students who have become the unsung heroes of the modern carp scene.
The 1990s will be remembered for the likes of Brit Pop, New Labour and Gameboys, but for carp fishing it was the decade that spawned a generation of passionate, liked-minded souls who would go on to play pivotal roles in the development of the modern carp scene, and the common denominator was Sparsholt College.
Names such as Simon Scott, Chris Blunt, Viv Shears, Ian Day, Andrew Ellis, Tim Oatley and Ben Gratwicke all studied at the Hampshire further education college during the nineties and are just a few of the many from the same decade who now hold down key roles within the industry. From fish farmers and fishery managers to bait developers and tackle manufacturers, carp fishing owes a great debt to this golden generation of former Sparsholt students.
Simon studied the Higher National Diploma in Fish Farming and Fishery Management between 1989 and 1992 and is now a director of VS Fisheries, a large carp-farming business situated on the South Coast.
“I have my dad to thank for discovering Sparsholt. I think he was desperately trying to find something that his dyslexic son could do after school. We visited the College on an open day and Dad and I both thought it was a cool spot, and what’s more, you could learn about fish.
“I met some great people from a variety of backgrounds during my time as a student, a few of whom are still working in fisheries, such as James Rotherham, who runs a trout farm, and Nick Brain, who is now a senior technical officer in the Environment Agency fisheries team and also my brother-in-law!
“There were many great times, probably the funniest single moment being when I sank over my head into deep water in a pair of waders while I was electrofishing during a practical with one of my all-time heroes, Shaun Leonard. That in itself was funny, but it was made a great deal funnier by the fact the spot I disappeared into was directly beneath a huge sewage outfall!
“After Sparsholt I went to the University of Plymouth and did a master’s degree in Applied Fish Biology. This was a year-long course which involved six months of lectures and exams and then a further six months undertaking a detailed research project. I examined carp’s ability to utilise various protein sources and how they digested them. Basically, I spent six months feeding and measuring batches of carp and also collected all of their poo, which I later analysed.
“After I had finished my master’s degree I worked within the University’s Faculty of Science for six months, helping degree students undertake their projects and further investigate carp nutrition. After leaving Plymouth I moved to Lymington in Hampshire and worked for a company called MacAllister Elliott and Partners, a large international fisheries consultancy. During my 2½ years there I worked on calculating compensation for fish farms that had lost stock following pollution events. The most notable case was calculating compensation for the 12 salmon farms that were polluted following the sinking of the supertanker, the MV Braer, which bumped into Shetland one stormy night.
“Following that job I left to join the lecturing team within the Fisheries Section at Sparsholt College. I joined the College staff in 1996 and worked there as a lecturer for 19 years before leaving in September 2015. During my time as a member of staff at Sparsholt, I was Course Tutor on the First Diploma in Fisheries Management, and then Course Tutor on the National Diploma in Fisheries Management.
“At the moment I am a director of VS Fisheries in Sussex. We produce high-quality British carp for the restocking market. In addition I have been a consultant for Korda for more than a decade and have presented several of the company’s Thinking Tackle shows. I also have a long-standing consultancy with the Cotswold carp bait manufacturer Baitworks. Lastly, I undertake fishery and pond consultancy work.
“I was statemented dyslexic at the age of 12 and told I would probably never achieve a great deal at school. The educational psychologist who analysed me told my mother I had a reading age of seven to eight years and it was highly unlikely I would ever obtain a single O Level (GCSE). I remember thinking to myself I would show him what he knew about my chances. I sent him a copy of my master’s degree certificate a few years after that!
“Sparsholt College had several amazing and hugely inspirational staff during my time there as a student and it was these people that showed me the way. They taught with real depth of knowledge and experience. I learned that if you work hard and don’t waste a single day, the chances will come, and that would be my advice to anyone thinking of following the same path.”
Andrew studied Fishery Management at Sparsholt and now runs consultancy business AE Fisheries in the Cotswolds.
“At the age of 15 I did work experience at a fish supplier in Suffolk. The long hours and freezing temperatures drilled home fast that this was not an easy way to make a living. I grafted and, thanks to a great reference, got a place at Sparsholt around 1993. Back then most students had worked on trout farms and I had only worked with coarse fish, so the first few months were tough, as the others knew lots more about salmonids than me. Then we started lectures on carp farming and fishery management, which had been my passion since childhood, and I was eager to learn and excelled at practical work and sport fishery management.
“After I graduated I was offered several jobs (a grafter is much more useful than a boffin who is scared of hard work), but I had already been offered a full-time job back in Suffolk with the company I started with, so I took that. Though I learned a great deal, saw a lot of the UK and worked at loads of fisheries. Even back then I noticed how people were all too eager to spend loads of money on fish when they seldom realised what their lakes truly contained. In general, anglers make poor fishery managers, as they think about things from a selfish point of view, often with little genuine experience of fish husbandry or practical management. I used to get frustrated because people wouldn’t learn from their mistakes.
“My frustration ended when I decided to start my own business. I decided to be straight talking, honest and no-nonsense. It was a nightmare to start with, as no one wanted to listen; they would pay for my advice and then mostly ignore it and just keep buying fish. I had loads of ponds I rented from farmers and already knew the importance of feeding fish, as time spent with some of the most influential lecturers to have walked the corridors of Sparsholt and the stuff I had seen from spending every day in muddy ponds and lakes taught me a great deal.
“My consultancy and fish supply business was taking off and I was getting a reputation as a straight talker. My honest and direct views did, on occasions, ruffle a few feathers, but I always knew if I grafted and told people what I knew, rather than what I presumed or had been told, I would eventually get respect. I care about fishery management, I care about my clients’ fish and their businesses, and they often need someone to point out the reality of a situation.
“As the business grew, I was asked to move to the Cotswolds to help develop a fishery there, and I am still involved there today. I have trained many Sparsholt students since leaving, travelled across Europe and beyond to create fisheries and fish farms, and talked at seminars about sustainable fishery management, and my passion for my work has paid off. It is hard work, the hours are long and I’ve got a bad back and knackered knees, but I am always smiling.”
Tim did a two-year National Diploma in Fisheries Studies at Sparsholt College between 1992 and 1994 and now runs Rookley Country Park fishery as well as the Blackwater and Monks Pool syndicates on the Isle of Wight.
“I left school without many qualifications and began working on a local farm that mainly grew sweetcorn with one of my best friends Mike Payne, who has unfortunately since passed away. After a few years of mostly seasonal work, we both decided we would try to do something more with our lives, so we applied for Sparsholt College.
“Because of our lack of qualifications we couldn’t get straight on the course we wanted to do and the one-year course was already full, so we decided to apply for a course at the Barony College in Dumfries. Completing this enabled us to start the two-year course at Sparsholt the following year. I learned then I should have knuckled down at school, because then I could have gone to Sparsholt earlier and studied the degree course. Because I didn’t have a degree when I graduated I wasn’t even considered for a couple of jobs I applied for in the industry.
“When I left Sparsholt I went back to the farm to earn some money for the summer. Then I started work at an aquatic centre selling koi and tropical fish. After that I moved to another aquatic and pet centre and became manager of the fish department. During this time I was introduced to the owner, at the time, of Rookley Country Park by a good friend of mine, Taffy Woodhouse. The owner wanted to make a feature of the lakes on his newly acquired holiday park to draw in anglers from all over the country. We had a meeting and he offered me the opportunity to run Rookley as my own little business. At first I did it part time on my days off, and then after a while I had to take the plunge and become self-employed.
“When I look back I realise I was lucky I became qualified at the right time, just before the massive carp fishing boom. The chaps I know in the industry from our era all have a real passion for the sport and the industry and were always going to end up working in it.
“My message to anyone looking to apply for a course in fishery studies is to make sure it is what you really want to do, because it’s not about going fishing. Most people in the industry hardly fish at all. Make sure you stand out at college and knuckle down, and use any work experience placements to make an impression on potential future employers, as it can be an amazing, rewarding career.”
Chris started a BSc honours degree in Aquaculture and Fishery Management in the late 1990s and is now the general manager of the country’s most popular day-ticket complex, Linear Fisheries.
“I’d never really heard of Sparsholt as a youngster, but that all changed one weekend in 1998. My good friend Lee Robbins was studying there and one weekend while we were fishing together he began telling me what he was doing at the College, which basically sounded like a degree in fishing! Of course, my ears pricked up at that point. I thought he was winding me up to start with, but it soon became clear this was actually a real course. Anyway, the following year both my friend Lee and I applied and got accepted for a degree course, so we handed in our notices at work ready to begin studying that September.
“My year was quite big and contained a number of people who would go on to work within the industry, such as my friend Lee, the former fishery officer at Lee Valley Regional Park; Ian Day, the GM at Sonubaits; Damien Lyndsey, now an EA enforcement officer; Jamie Godson, the current fishery officer at Lee Valley Regional Park, and Steve Burley, who runs a very successful fishery consultancy business and fish farm.
“We had three memorable years together and some great laughs along the way. We used to have an annual Spanish ‘study tour’, which was meant to be a tour of various fish farms, but as you’d expect, it did get a bit messy at times. En route to our main base for the week, we stopped at a hostel that by all accounts they stopped at every year. As you’d imagine, after a long trip in a minibus we wanted to stretch our legs. Half the lads went straight to the bar or shops and the others, myself included, grabbed the fishing rods. We were on the coast and after a bit of fun catching mullet we remembered how George Hide, the lecturer in charge of the trip, had been telling us that no one in all the years of this trip had ever caught a sea bass. Well, that was it! Ian, Steve and I saw that as a challenge, and a couple of hours later we returned victorious after I took a cracking bass on a lure. I can remember the locals trying their best to have it off us for the table, but we were having none of that, and back she went. This was back in the days of old school film (not a digital camera to be seen), so we had no proof, and there were more than a few doubters, including George. It wasn’t until later in the year that we were actually able to convince George when we sent him a photo. We even managed another bass at the next stop in Deportivo de La Coruña, but it was only small and we didn’t take any photos. To this day he still doesn’t believe we caught two!
“After college it was hard work finding jobs in the fishery industry. For a short period after the course I helped Steve Burley on some jobs as he started his fledgling consultancy business. Then, for around 12 months, I made do with temp jobs here and there, making sure I applied to as many fishy-related jobs as I could. Eventually I secured a management position running an aquatics centre for Frosts Garden Centres. I was in this position, which I enjoyed, for more than two years, before I got the phone call from Len Gurd telling me I’d got the job I’d always been hoping for at Linear. In June 2005, I started as the fishery officer and maintenance officer.
“I thoroughly enjoy what I do and love turning up to work each day; some would probably describe it as a dream job, but as with all jobs it does have its moments, believe me! I suppose the most obvious one of those moments would have to be the summer floods of 2007. I’d only been in the job two years and can clearly remember fishing on Yeomans Lake the night it started raining. The following day Roy Parsons and I both joked about how we’d never seen rain last so long; little did we know what was to follow. After 24 hours of non-stop, torrential rain, it became clear we were in trouble. The ground floor of my house was flooded, parts of the site were inaccessible except by boat, and at one point a few of us were evacuating anglers at two o’clock in the morning! After the site was safely evacuated, the troops were gathered and we muddled together as much fencing material as we could to stop fish escaping.
“The following day was actually my first wedding anniversary. Needless to say, I don’t think Jackie was expecting her present to be a pair of waders and gloves as she got stuck in fencing St John’s! At the time many people questioned whether the fishery would ever be the same again, but Linear meant so much to all of us involved we knew we’d get it back on track, and now, nearly 10 years on, those floods are a distant memory and the fishery is more popular than ever.
“If you are looking to go down the same route, I’d encourage you to try as hard as you can, because if you don’t someone else will. However, the most important bit of advice I could give would be to broaden your view of where you want to end up. There aren’t many jobs around running fishing lakes, but in the fishing and aquatic industry as a whole, there are. If you set your stall out that you only want to work on a carp fishery, you’ll almost certainly end up disappointed. Don’t ignore the trout fisheries, the aquatic trade or the retail fishing tackle market. These may not be the areas you really want, but you might surprise yourself to find that it opens other doors. I definitely didn’t enjoy temping for 12 months after finishing my degree, but eventually it came good.”
Ben studied Fish Farming, Fishery Management and Fishery and Fish Science during the early 1990s and ran Priory Fisheries before getting into project management. He also runs and manages Diggerlakes in Devon.
“I was raised on Priory Fisheries, so I suppose it is in my blood. When I was younger I never wanted to do anything else, so going to Sparsholt was inevitable. During College I met the likes of Viv Shears, Myles Gascoyne and Tim Oatley, amongst various others, and am still good friends with them to this very day. Before College I worked with Simon Scott on my first fish farm outside of the family business. Simon and I have been great friends ever since and were best men at each other’s weddings, and although we live 120 miles apart, we still speak most weeks.
“Sparsholt was great fun back in those days, and being away from home with your best mates felt like living the dream. One of the most memorable moments for me was pulling off the running of the World Carp Classic with Simon and Shaun Leonard, who at the time was my boss, as I also worked at Sparsholt as a lecturer for three years. The competition was in France and we took a group of students to help with the running of the five-day competition. I had spent a lot of time preparing and promoting the competition, but did not speak any other language apart from English. However, that did not prevent the event being a great success, which I feel is testament to the teamwork and ability we shared.
“After Sparsholt I went to work in an aquatic centre for a year and then travelled and worked on a kibbutz in Israel, where I managed to get to work on a big fish farm, which was very interesting. I then ran Priory Fisheries for many years, which was hard work but very rewarding, as at one point we were producing more coarse fish than anyone else. I would even see carp in my sleep! I then parted company with the business and now work for my wife’s family.
“It was a major change moving from fish farming to becoming a project manager of a large scale warehouse refurbishment, particularly when you don’t know your way from one end of a brick to the other! However, 18 months later I managed to pull it off and then helped relocate the business into new 100,000 square-foot premises. I find I work well under pressure and love a challenge.
“People often ask why our generation has turned out to be so successful and it’s difficult to pin it down to one factor. We studied at a time when Sparsholt was accessible if you had the right grades and really wanted it badly enough. The team who taught us was second to none, with the likes of Chris Seagrave and Pat Houghton, who run Bow Lakes Fish Farm now, Peter Black, Dave Koss, George Hide, Mark Burdhass and, of course, Shaun Leonard all in their primes of teaching. I was super competitive, and coming from a fish-farming background really helped. Two of my mates, Mark Townsend and Martin Pay, who I shared the years with, just made it all so much fun, so if you’ve got that, you’re always going to do well.
“If you are looking to follow a similar path, you need to be so keen to make it that you will do even the worst jobs just to get there. I have been on my hands and knees in freezing conditions more times than I care to remember, picking up two-inch tench! There is no easy path, but if you want it badly enough, you will succeed.”
Myles studied a Higher National Diploma in Fish Farming and Fishery Management between 1991 and 1993. He set up CarpSchool in 2004, has been an angling consultant for many years and currently works as a commercial photographer.
“I have always loved fishing and all things fishy and wanted to work outside. I thought about going straight into work after school, but my parents wisely suggested I got some formal qualifications, so Sparsholt was the obvious destination.
“There I met Viv Shears, Rich King, Lee Farquarson, Mike Taylor-Firth, Paul Hill and various others, and had some great times. I remember the first practical we did was at the beginning of November and just so happened to be on my birthday. It was a cold, wet day and we were netting the College pond. Some bright spark thought I should be picked up by the arms and legs and thrown into the pond. From that day on when we went on a practical day, whether it was on the upper Test or some muddy puddle, the person whose birthday was closest would be launched into the water. It didn’t always go down too well!
“I remember at the end of my time at Sparsholt, I finished my last exam at midday and after a pint in the pub went straight to the airport. I was working on a big game boat at 6.30 the next morning! A few weeks into that job I was part of the team that won the World Blue Marlin Championships with a fish of 953lb. With my share of the winnings I paid off all my student debts and more.
“I worked on a number of boats around the world, including some charter boats. However, most of them were private boats designed to hunt world records and win tournaments. I did that for 11 years, but then had to come home and spend a year in St Bartholomew’s Hospital with cancer. I went back to the boats for another year, but made the decision to return home.
“I then worked in London for a while before moving to Winchester. I set up CarpSchool, which wasn’t so different to what I had been doing on the big game boats. It’s entertainment, at the end of the day, making sure people enjoy the day and catch some fish, and, of course, learn a ton along the way. I was fishing four to five nights a week, which was great business, but not so great for a young family.
“In recent times I decided to retrain myself and studied commercial photography. I now have a studio in the centre of Winchester. I love the challenge of learning new skills, and it is a far cry from capture shots and nice sunrises. I have some great clients, including some from the fishing industry. I shoot products for catalogues and websites, as well as for advertising and editorial. This work fits around the family and means I can spend time with them. I find it sad to see some people putting fishing before their family.
“Looking back at my time at Sparsholt College, it was certainly a different place back then. The tutors and staff, such as Shaun Leonard, Chris Seagrave and Pat Houghton, were amazing people at the top of their game and leaders in the industry. The class sizes were small, we were supportive of each other and worked well as a team. The relationship between our year group and the lecturers was good. We had some amazing field trips in the UK and abroad. In addition, there were more jobs in a fast-growing industry.
“It is significantly harder these days to find work once you are qualified. There are jobs out there, but only a handful, and there are hundreds of students with qualifications leaving colleges across the country each year. You need to be in the top two or three in your year, be incredibly motivated and have the skills to find a job. There were more jobs and less qualified people entering the industry back in the early 1990s.
“If it’s something you want to do, I’d first encourage you to ask yourself why you want to do it. If it’s because you love carp fishing and want to work at a fishery, then think again. I suggest you get a job that will pay you more money and go fishing as your hobby. You can still try to get sponsorship if you really want some fame; you will fish more and earn more doing it that way.”