Fancy buying a lake and opening it up to carp anglers? Orchid Lakes boss Marsh Pratley tells you what to expect...
Want to run your own carp fishery? “Chase the dream,” says Marsh Pratley, “but remember it’s never going to be easy.”
More than 20 years ago, the former Royal Marine took a gamble on a trio of Oxfordshire gravel pits and began to cultivate the Orchid Lakes complex.
Two decades on, he can survey his lovingly tended waters from the large house he built on site and reflect on making countless new friends, raising pots of cash for charity and providing hundreds of anglers with new personal bests. He can also recall a bitter feud with a sailing club, having to deal with rule-breaking punters and the perils of internet rumours.
Today, though, Marsh is cracking jokes and talking fondly of fishery ownership. As well he might do – yet again Orchid, the larger of the two fishable waters currently on site, has fished its socks off this winter. One January day alone produced 11 thirties.
“I can remember thinking, aged about 10 or 11, that I’d love to own a lake when I grow up. I had visions of owning a lake with chalets around it, but as you get older those thoughts go to the back of your mind.”
Having left the armed forces and joined the civil service, Marsh took early retirement at 43 and the thought of running a lake returned. “Dorchester Fisheries, who ran it at the time, went into receivership and the adjoining sailing club approached me. At the time I was thinking about buying (ultra-tough bream Mecca) Queenford but there weren’t many anglers wanting to fish there and there was the threat of it being landfilled, so I didn’t think it would be worthwhile. So this place came up for sale and I went in with the sailing club and I ended up with Orchid.”
The joint agreement allowed anglers to fish Orchid, neighbouring Club Lake and the expansive Dorchester Lagoon which also hosted the sailors, but what Marsh calls a “welching on the deal” has seen that venue seized exclusively for boaters.
Taking the keys to the complex in September 1995, there were no permanent buildings on site, but Marsh had struck gold with the resident fish.
“ARC had stocked all the lakes in this area with Leney’s back in the 1970s and I sort of inherited that. It’s never been stocked by me and never will be. If you want to fish for foreign fish, go abroad.
“When I first started, I was offered six fish all over the then record and I could’ve filled every swim every day, but I didn’t want to do that. If you are a cold businessman, that’s what you would have done, but that’s just not my thing. I’m not after chasing every penny and the fish will always come first.
“I always knew I would make a success of it but it was hard work. I had a young family living in rented accommodation while I was in caravan by the side of the lake. It took two and a half years to get planning permission for a house and lots of people told me that would never happen.”
As the popularity of carp fishing exploded in the late 1990s, Orchid was the first fishery in the country to offer daily catch reports on its website. “When I was fishing I wanted to know what was happening, so when I first took over I made a conscious decision to record all the catches and put them online.”
In the current age of social media, Marsh maintains a busy Facebook page but knows it can be a blessing and a curse. “The most important thing you have in life is your reputation. If I say it’s fishing well, they know it’s fishing well. There’s no point bulls***tingpeople because it’ll come back to bite you.
“The worst thing in fishing is the mobile phone – before you know it, people are saying it’s a s*** lake, don’t bother going. But when it’s fishing well, everyone wants to know. It’s a double-edged sword – the internet can make you or destroy you.”
Marsh has developed an unerring habit for predicting when the lake will switch on, often telling his Facebook followers to expect pictures of big fish just moments before one is landed.
“You do become tuned in to the water and you know when things are going to happen. A few years ago we had British Carp Angling Championship qualifiers on Orchid and after the draw we were able to predict the first, second and third-placed swims in order and how many fish those anglers would catch. We did that two years on the trot!”
Opening up what is effectively your back garden to the public is not without its issues and Marsh knows he has a fearsome reputation for weeding out trouble-makers. “I’m very strict on rules, but it does keep the idiots out. You have to have a strong reputation or you get trodden on.
“There’s always someone who wants to get an edge by using something they’re not allowed. When I was fishing it was with likeminded people who didn’t need to be told, they knew the situation and applied common sense. These days, people have come straight into carp fishing and they want to make a name for themselves, so you have to keep tabs on it and you have to check rigs.
“I’ve kicked some very high-profile anglers off here before.”
A successful specimen hunter in the 1980s, Marsh’s own fishing has taken a backseat since acquiring Orchid and he now rarely wets a line. “I love my fishing – but I can’t play at it, I cannot do it part time, so I knew it would take second place when I got involved here. The next best thing is watching others catching the fish of their dreams.”
And Marsh does just that, going out to witness all fish over 30lb at any hour of the day, making it a truly 24/7 job. “I go out for the thirties for a few reasons. Firstly, to make sure the fish are handled correctly as some anglers have never caught one in their lives. Secondly, so the angler can go away with decent pictures, and also so I can advertise what’s being caught. It’s a win-win situation for everyone. I also love seeing the fish on the bank. I really enjoy it when you see an angler with a beaming smile on his face
“One winter, I had an angler who caught a 32.4 in the middle of the night. I went out at 2am and the fish was in its golden colours looking absolutely stunning. The bloke said ‘I guess it ain’t half bad’ and I told him that if he can’t be happy with that then he should give up fishing.”
Away from the joy of seeing anglers break their personal bests, there is a lot of hard work that goes into running a fishery. “The worst thing about it is I don’t really have a life outside fishing, I’m always on call. It’s like being a gamekeeper; this is my back garden and it does take over your life. It’s like looking after a child. You’ve got to have somebody who can step in if you have to go to the dentist or the doctor.”
Aside from issuing tickets, owning a fishery also means preserving swims, clearing fallen trees and maintaining access tracks – with every outlay having to be balanced against the flow of anglers coming through the gates.
“If you were looking to buy a fishery now you’d have to realise there are so many established waters these days and that building your own reputation and carving out your own niche takes a lot of effort. You are open seven days a week and you could be frozen over from November to March. That’s happened here before and, like any other business, you have to budget for the hard times.”
Looking to the future, Marsh is keen to host more charity events like the hugely successful Anglers Against Cancer fundraisers that have become a fixture of his calendar, and keep his prices affordable. “I want to make a nice living but I could make a lot more if I was a businessman, but I’m an angler. I also think as you get older you realise how important it is to do your bit for charity.”
Would he discourage anyone from owning a fishery? “No,” says Marsh, “but it isn’t always easy.
“It’s a bit like farming, except you don’t know if you’ve done too much too soon, or too little too late because you can’t see your ‘cattle’. It’s like doing it blindfolded – a lot of it is gut feeling and instinct.”