She was quite a fish, according to Tony Bridgefoot, owner of Bluebell Lakes, a carp fishery in Peterborough, England.
Local anglers found Benson, the beloved 64-pound carp who made her home in Kingfisher Lake on Bridgefoot's complex, floating July 28. "We never expected this at all," says Bridgefoot. "These carp can live to be 30 [years old] or more, and she had just turned 20. She was very special to all of us."
Bridgefoot originally thought she had died after consuming raw tigernuts that had been found around the lake. (Tigernuts must be properly prepared before they can be used as bait.) However, when she was taken to the taxidermist to be stuffed, Benson was found to be full of unlaid spawn that had rotted and poisoned her - a natural death.
"She probably could've lived another four or five years," says Bridgefoot, who bought Benson for the lake in 1995 when she was a mere 20 pounds. "This was the biggest common carp in the U.K., and the second-biggest carp ever - a very pretty, pretty fish." (Two Tone, a mirror carp that lives in Conningbrook Lake in Willsborough, U.K. - at 67 pounds the largest on record - is still thriving.)
Benson was first landed in April 1996 at 33 pounds and then again in March 1997 at 36 pounds. That's when she received her name.
"A hole appeared in her dorsal fin, a genetic defect that looked like a cigarette burn," says Bridgefoot. "The man that caught her [Dave Scales] named her Benson after the Benson & Hedges brand of cigarettes."
So Benson she stayed, and each of the 63 times she was caught and released she grew bigger and bigger and bigger. "She was a greedy girl, eat anything you put in front of her," says Bridgefoot, laughing. "She really captured hearts."
Matthew Ridley, a 27-year-old fisherman who caught Benson in May - one of the last people to do so - says he was heartbroken to hear she had died. "I still can't believe it to this day that she is gone," says Ridley. "I was gobsmacked when I heard the news. I feel bad for all of the anglers who have spent years trying to catch her - and those who might've if she had continued on."
Ridley grew up fishing in the area; his specialty is carp. "I spent seven months on the lake before I caught her," says Ridley. "I would spend three to five days of the week fishing for her and, if I hadn't caught her, I would've kept doing that."
He fishes with a remote-controlled bait boat that's about 3 feet. The boat distributes the bait near the dock and he monitors three lines mounted on land (read more about his technique).
Ridley remembers the weather being warm and breezy that day in May - perfect for fishing. "She hadn't been caught in 12 months prior to me catching her, so she fought me for about 20 minutes," says Ridley. "My arm was killing me. I thought it was going to drop off."
Ridley says he couldn't believe it when she was sitting in his net after reeling her in. Because Bluebell Lakes is a catch-and-release facility, he used a barbless hook so it would be easily removed from her mouth.
"I didn't want to let her go. She's quite a pretty thing and, believe me, I've seen a lot worse," says Ridley. "When I was holding her in the water, it was like you wanted to be there for the rest of your life."
Ridley was concerned to hear about the raw nuts found in the water near Benson. Though they did not turn out to be the cause of death, he is surprised they didn't hurt any of the other fish.
"They weren't prepared properly; you have to soak them for a couple of days and boil them for a few hours," says Ridley. "Once they swell up and absorb the water they are perfectly safe to use, but if not prepared they could swell up inside a carp and block their intestines so they can't feed anymore."
Bridgefoot says they have instituted strict bait and tackle inspections of everyone who comes to fish from here on out. As for Benson, she will return from the taxidermist to be mounted in one of the main buildings.
Will there ever be another fish like Benson? Ridley says there is a mirror carp called the Fat Lady at a fishing complex in St. Ives, Cambridge, that is currently 60 pounds.
"She could come through as one of the more popular fish in the U.K., but she'll never have a name like Benson did, unfortunately," says Ridley. "She was very special to all of us."