Whenever Beverley Clifford tells someone that she is the manager of the England Women’s Carp Fishing team the reaction is invariably the same.
“They say to me: ‘You don’t look like someone who goes fishing’,” she says. “And I say: ‘Oh so what should someone who goes fishing look like?’”
Though meeting her at the side of a Nottinghamshire lake where some of the biggest carp in the country are rumoured to lurk, it is not hard to appreciate what lies behind such an assumption.
Clifford confounds every preconception those of us who know nothing about fishing have of the sport. She is young, she is athletic (when she is not casting into the water she is an accomplished ultra-marathon runner) and – more to the point – she is female.
“I do get a lot of that,” she says. “There is definitely an old-school side to angling, a resistance to people like me from older blokes. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard that women don’t belong on the river bank, they belong in the kitchen.”
But that, she reckons, is an attitude in hasty retreat. The daughter of the fishing magazine publisher Kevin Clifford, an angler once widely known as the “Carp King of the North”, the 36-year-old from Yorkshire is at the forefront of an angling revolution. Female participation is growing at an unfettered pace, in part led by her and her vibrant social media presence.
“I remember when I first went fishing with my dad when I was a kid, you just didn’t see any women,” she says. “Even five years ago, you could probably count the number of females doing it on the fingers of two hands. Now there are thousands of us.”
Or so she believes.
“They don’t ask on a fishing licence application if you are male or female, so we don’t have any true figures on how much female participation has grown. Which is a real shame. But I just know from my own experience, this is a sport changing before our eyes.”
This year has seen a significant increase in women having a go at angling largely as a consequence of the pandemic. Many beginners found being beside the water the perfect escape from the suffocating constrictions of lockdown. Though, despite the fact fishing is now the only grass-roots sport open in the second lockdown, Clifford believes this time round it will not be quite the same.
“In the first lockdown the beautiful weather definitely helped the phenomenal growth,” she says. “Sadly I don’t think as many will be venturing out in this one. I know we all say there’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong kind of clothes, but the truth is, this is really a March to October sport.”
As she speaks, Clifford is demonstrating her facility with a rod. An elegant, smooth sweep of her arms and the weight disappears off into the murky distance, plopping into the water so far away it appears to land in another post code. Casting involves putting the arms into wholly counter-intuitive positions, but Clifford’s technique is as elegant as Tiger Woods’s golf swing. She can send her hook twice as far as her interviewer manages when he has a go. Indeed she is living proof that there is no physical reason women cannot compete with men at the sport: she can cast as far as the most muscle-bound bloke.
“No, it’s a cultural thing, this is the male domain,” she says. “Or it used to be. When I first went with my dad, I wasn’t much drawn to it, probably because I didn’t see any women out there doing it. When you watched gymnastics on telly, though, there were loads of women. You thought: I’ll give that a go instead.”
She returned to the sport in her mid-twenties, looking for a bit of redirection after spending a little too much time, as she puts it, in bars and clubs. She loved it, finding within it a perfect means of escape from daily life. “It’s the best destressing thing you can do. First couple of hours you’re sitting here, thinking about work, thinking about that email you should have sent. Then, gradually, it just disappears. The thing is, you can’t hurry a fish. You just have to wait. And that waiting does something to the mind. At the end of a day by the water, you come away feeling like you’ve been rebooted.”
So it was when the idea of setting up women-only competitions was first mooted, she found herself inevitably drawn in. “Although women can compete against men, when it comes to spreading the word, women-only tournaments have really worked. When men are involved women can feel intimidated. Not so much physically – though it’s always reassuring to see another woman on the bank – as that women lack the confidence to give it a go if men are judging them. But when you get a bunch of women together on the bank, they have a right laugh.”
The first women’s international carp fishing match took place between England and Wales only four years ago. In the summer of 2019 a World Cup was held, featuring teams from England, France, Romania, Holland and Wales. The next one is due in 2021 and has expanded to include the United States, Germany and South Africa. Clifford will be there, in charge of the England team.
“The first year, it was a case of ringing round to get participants. I wasn’t going to do it at first. But a lady called Miranda Hughes, who was behind the whole thing, wouldn’t take no for an answer. And I really enjoyed it. Then Miranda stepped back and I’ve taken over as manager. Now there are that many more women fishing, we can run proper trials, a whole selection process.”
And it is easy, she says, to get involved in the sport. While the boot of her car may be stuffed with top-grade equipment provided by her sponsors (her rod alone retails at £700, and then there is her state-of-the-art electronic bite alarm system) she reckons it is possible to start with a £20 rod.
“My other half loves his kit. He’s forever telling me I need to upgrade. But I’m not sure having the latest gear puts any more fish on the bank,” she says. “So many anglers are obsessed with finding the secret to landing the best fish. But fish aren’t robots, they don’t conform to your processes. They’re wild animals, they’ll do what they want. You can have the best rods, but if the fish of your dreams isn’t interested it won’t make any difference. What you need most of all is luck.”
Though Clifford appears to be luckier than most. And every time she does haul in a record-breaking carp, after checking it for injury, she will release it straight back into the water. “These are really beautiful creatures,” she says. “The last thing I’d want to do is harm them.”