Before we get started, I thought it would be nice to reflect back on 2016; I think most would agree that it was an incredibly memorable year although unfortunately, mostly for bad reasons. It was the year that so many famous people (from anglers to rock stars) left us to make their journey to the stars. It was the year of Brexit, Trump and rising civil unrest across Europe. It was also the year of terrible atrocities across the Middle East with the human catastrophe in Syria possibly being the worst of our times.
In the shadow of all this, the angling went on despite seeming at times almost puerile; in sobering moments I’d ponder how could it could be so fiercely important while it seemed all around me, the world was disintegrating. I guess the answer is that fishing is the ultimate retreat - our little sanctuary of solace and peace amidst the madness of the world.
My angling year began to unfold down at Chilham Estate in Kent. I’d been trying to get a couple of nights in each week as the balmy weather of that famously warm and blustery winter continued. My campaign had started a month earlier, in December 2015, and through a lot of hard work, I’d been getting some quite good results. The way the angling unfolded was actually quite interesting; in previous winters I’d found the fish to be very ‘bitty’ in that they often preferred baits like maggots, crumb and small stuff to whole boilies.
In fact this is often the way with my winter fishing - crumb and maggots always seem to bring more bites than straight boilie fishing even without the ever predictable bright pop up over the top! In the past I’d had some good winter action from the lake using the aforementioned technique but for some unknown reason it all changed around during the winter of 2014 and suddenly these old carp became avid boilie devourers. It was a huge eye opener as I experienced my ever reliable tactics being nullified and on occasion embarrassed, by anglers using bait boats loaded high with big boilies. Being able to adapt is of course key and it was certainly time for a regroup. There was no way I was going down the boat route (personal choice) but I thought that if I adopted a straight boilie approach and interlaced this with a highly mobile, scatter baiting tactic I might be able to give the carp something a bit different and, hopefully get my alarms singing once more.
Part of the key here (in fact a really big part) was the mobility of the fish. With the lack of any really cold weather and with weed growth being low to modest at best, there was little to hold the fish anywhere and they would move around the lake constantly. I’d not come across this before - the fish were as active as summer carp and could travel hundreds of yards in a few hours. Whether this was down to the unseasonal conditions I don’t know, but retrospectively I’m not sure it was because even in the few really cold snaps they remained mobile.
The angling was completely centred on looking and listening. Yes, I know this is always the case but here it was even more vital (if that is possible), as if you saw a fish and cast or moved to it, often you’d get a bite. This resulted in sometimes several moves a session which in pouring rain and thick mud was arduous to say the least. It meant that I was glued to the water from first light until well into the evening - a good 15 hours solid, unbroken looking and listening, every day. After two nights you were more than ready to go home for a recharge, I can tell you!
The most effective catcher of the carp while I was there was ‘Weed Cutter’ Steve French. He and I fished in the same highly mobile style and Steve is a very good angler - for a lot of the time we were competing against each other which was fun and ensured we had to be at the top of our respective games!
One the the things that intrigued me most was that Steve got all his bites in darkness while all mine seemed to come in daylight. It really was quite marked and I spent a lot of time trying to work out why - if I found the answer and started getting bites at night then I thought I could almost double my catch rate as the lake was primarily a night water. The answer revealed itself when I was chatting to Steve one night; he told me all his fishing was with stringers and bottom baits whereas all mine was with pop ups. I went away and analysed this at length; I’d come across situations before where it was clear that fish were more catchable on a bait that was hard on the deck in the hours of darkness. It’s almost like the fish have their snouts hard against or even into the lake bed - a pop up would be easily missed because they simply aren’t expecting to find food there.
From that juncture, I would wind in my pop ups on dusk and replace them with bottom baits. Similarly, a couple of hours after dawn, I’d wind in the bottom baits and send out the pops. The results really were quite enlightening!
During January and February I’d managed to put in 13 nights with a return of 26 fish - a very pleasing result indeed. Having access to the first batches of Manilla definitely helped but the technical change played a big part along with stubborn work rate and endless water watching.
PIC1: The mirror appropriately known as the Stunner - a mid thirty that was perfect in every way
PIC3: My last fish was this glorious 31lb common that came in extremely cold weather
PIC4: It was all about looking, looking and more looking…
PIC5: Day rig - nice and high
By now it was well into February and finally the weather had turned really, really cold! So much so that I decided to turn to one of my most reliable haunts in such weather - Bayeswater in Essex. The best tactic here is unquestionably the maggots and boille crumb so it was time to ditch the whole baits and return to my most trusted of winter approaches. I did two nights, catching a couple with the most memorable being a bite right on dawn amidst really thick frost. As I tentatively played the fish in, it nodded and lunged in the deep margins; I was desperate to get it in as hypothermia was setting in but the fish was having none of it! Eventually it succumbed and after securing the net, I ran for the bivvy and lit the stove. I was only wearing long johns and a hoody and it was around minus 4! The fabulous mirror weighed over 28lbs and was a a lovely example of the remarkable fish the lake holds.
PIC7: Netting a good Bayeswater fish on a bitter, frosty morning
PIC8: Cold water result that made my hands hurt!
As we came into March the light levels dictated the lakes that had been on lockdown for the last few months would be on the cusp of waking up. I think at this time of year it doesn’t matter too much if it is still cold, the key factor being the daylight hours and this, coupled with nature waking up in the form of some big fly hatches, means that the carp can be very catchable even if it still feels a tad parky.
The famous Quarry is a lake that I have formed a solid love affair with over the last few years. Although it has a fearsome winter record, I knew that the extended daylight could bring an early chance. Arriving before dawn, after a lot of walking and looking, I eventually found fish fizzing on an area at range and as I watched in the gloomy drizzle, one slid silently out up to his gills. This was the visual opportunity that I’d spent the last few hours prowling the lake in search of and after continuing to stare at the area for the next hour in case anything else occurred, I set about fetching my gear and hatching a plan.
The area the fish were feeding over was smooth, firm silt with very short new weed growth over it. I’m never overly bothered by what the lakebed is comprised of as long as it is clean enough to present a rig, after all the fish are already feeding there so don’t overcomplicate it - just fish for them!
I had a bag of 12mm Manilla with me and, knowing the Quarry carp like a bit of bait, I decided to put out 15 Spombs of whole boilies. Rigs were to be MK2 Multi Rigs (something I’d been using for a while, consisting of a stiff mono loop, albrighted to fluoro with a soft braid), with matching pop ups and leads on clips.
After a still night, two bites came just on dawn; a gorgeous plump common, followed by an equally fabulous 32lb mirror. It was a great start and it looked good for more. I’d seen two more shows and both the weather and moon were perfect; it was all to play for.
PIC9: Early season Quarry chunk
PIC10: The Big Fully made it a corking brace of thirties
At noon, I despatched another 2 kilos to the spot, nice and accurately at 80 yards. The Quarry is noted as a nocturnal water and so I considered this to be a ‘safe’ time to bait up. I finished putting the bait out and began to sort a few things out when the middle rod absolutely tore off! I was genuinely in shock that I’d had a day bite and so quickly after baiting up but the powerful fish and thoroughly bent rod left me in no doubt that I wasn’t dreaming! The fish was safely netted and revealed as another mint perfect 20lb common.
After this I decided to put out an additional hit of bait which was more than I would have originally considered in such cold water but when the fish show you they want to feed, it is usually wise to respond by giving them more of what they want.
That night was very wet and I lay in my bag, riddled with insomnia, listening to the patter of rain on the brolly. Dawn was an hour away and I knew that right now was bite time - somewhere out there the monsters would be munching and I lay on my side watching the static isotopes.
Seconds later I was pulling on my waterproofs as the left hand rod was wrenched from the clip. I stood out on the slippery boards locked in battle with a defiant heavyweight as steady rain fell all around. I eventually netted my adversary and secured him while I went back to the brolly to dry off my glasses. While I was doing this, the middle rod was away and once again I was connected to a carp that thumped away in the darkness out by the island.
The fish were a memorable brace of stunners. The first was a simply breathtaking mirror of 21 pounds and the second was the Big Fully Scaled at 30lb 8oz. Despite the pouring rain, I didn’t want to retain them and so set about getting some self takes done which didn’t come out too badly considering the conditions. Once that was done, I Spombed out a bit more bait and retired to the brolly. The final bite came not long after dawn in the shape of a plump 22lb mirror. Six fish was more than I could have hoped for and I reflected that good observation and timing had once again played a big part.
By now spring was really upon us and with that it was time for my annual working trip over at Crete Lakes in France. I was to be looking after Darren and Colin, both of whom had become good friends following successive trips together. I’d worked out a formula that seems to be a surefire way to success on these tough, super pressured lakes. It revolves around something I have written about many times before: Free Safe Food.
When you consider these lakes, you realise that a good French venue is fully booked, every swim, 24/7, all week, all year! That is a pressure unlike anything we see over here and as such the fish in these lakes really can take some catching. So, instead of turning up, piling in the bait and then getting the rods out, I have found that by baiting regularly and not fishing (sometimes for 48hours), the results can be quite staggering.
If you think about it, the fish in these lakes are never given bait with absolutely zero danger. I’m not talking about the fashionable ‘resting the swim’ halfway through the week, I’m talking about NOT fishing it from the beginning! This is basic prebaiting and is a tactic I have used widely in the UK on busy lakes. What people fail to realise is that when you are in a swim it is your own real estate; you can do whatever you like with it! Is it best to just get fishing or effectively close off your own swim and bait it up? I think we all know the answer to that…
This can work on sessions as short as a day and often, if I have the luxury of a three night trip, then I won’t fish the first 24hours, choosing instead to ‘rope off’ my swim and prebait it instead. The results can be incredible, I promise you!
Ideally I wanted to get the lads onto Lake 1; this is the home to a vast head of big fish and the lake that we’d managed to crack a few times before. However, at Crete Lakes there is always a draw for swims and we go into this along with everyone else. It is always a tense affair because you have a good idea where you want to be and you are praying that it doesn’t get taken before your number comes up! This time we came out about halfway down the draw with our first choices already taken. This is where it is vital to have a list of other options in descending order so that when your turn comes, you aren’t suddenly left with a blank mind as all the faces stare silently at you waiting for you to make your decision!
PIC11: Whenever Darren, Colin and myself go on tour it’s a lot of fun!
As it happened, we managed to get Darren and Colin into a double swim on Lake 1 and an area we felt had good potential. My first choice on Lake 2 was taken early on but I opted for another swim on the lake and before long we were all off getting settled.
And so it began; Colin and Darren started baiting their swim little and often with Manilla crumb. The fish at Crete Lakes had never seen this bait before so we were keen to see what impact it would have. The plan was to bait two or three times a day and not fish until the Monday.
I was over on Lake 2 and although not in my first choice of swim, it didn’t look too bad apart from one thing - the fish were all held up along the far bank causeway that divides Lake 2 and Lake 4. The forecast was hot and I recalled that the previous year, they hadn’t left that bank at all in similar conditions. I baited and fished but the carp were intent on staying along the causeway no matter what. The only bites that came were to the anglers fishing that exact area - for the rest of us it was frustrating in the extreme.
By the Wednesday I’d had enough of waiting for them to come to me and following some nocturnal walks, I’d found a good number of big fish showing in a vacant corner of the lake next door. I moved straight round there early the next morning and on the first night had fish of 41lbs and 45lbs - the latter taking the line out of my fingers as I was sinking it after a recast! The following night the same spot produced a long, muscle packed mirror of 50lb 10oz which gave me the hardest fight I have ever experienced, it was breathtaking stuff!
PIC12: The demon scrapper at over 50lbs - it just wouldn’t give up!
At this point Colin and Darren had things rocking and every time I went to visit them it was total carnage - slings, nets and rods everywhere! As usual the tactic of ‘Free Safe Food’ was working incredibly well and as the week slipped on, they surpassed thirty, then forty fish with numerous bigguns topped by a monster of 64lbs.
From my new swim, I was able to closely monitor the fish movements back on the neighbouring lake I had started on and, to my amazement, the back end of the week finally saw them spread out around the lake again.
I’d spent a few hours sat round with a young lad called Jake and his Dad, helping them out with rigs and a few things. Jake was super keen but hadn’t caught yet and I wanted to see if I could help change that. On my way back to my swim later that afternoon, I passed by the spot I’d been fishing earlier in the week and just as I did, a really good fish crashed out over it! I stopped, climbed a tree and looked hard. There were some real monsters about and I decided I had to have a go for them. Later on I would reflect that if I hadn’t walked round to see Jake and his Dad, I would probably never have known - real Karma at work maybe…
In preparation I Spombed out 3 kilos of oily Krill before popping back to my swim to get a single rod, net and low chair. As dusk descended I flicked a fresh rig out which landed very nicely on the spot and I sat back to wait as big, oily swirls appeared all around the area. It really was exciting with so many chunks around and the quick bite that followed a succession of liners should have been the obvious outcome but it totally took me by surprise. The culprit was a stonking great common of 41lbs and after a few self takes, I put some more bait out and respotted the rod. I remember the cast landing even harder that the first one - it absolutely detonated!
PIC13: Amid the liners came a surprise forty plus common
It was an hour before dawn, and I was sat hunched in the low chair in a light sleep, a film of dew covered my knees and fresh cobwebs were loosely knitted across the peak of my cap. Suddenly in the cloying mist, the single rod at my feet pulled up tight. I watched the line cut the still surface of the lake in half as something very powerful tried to make it to the dense weedbeds. This time the fish held deep, ploughing through the weed, sending severed and uprooted fronds to the surface. It felt very heavy indeed and the battle went on and on.
When I did eventually net it, I knew it was a good one and thought perhaps mid forty. I donned my waders and unhooked the fish before easing the mesh into a sling. Firmly secured, I prepared to step up, out of the lake with the fish. Nothing happened - I was simply unable to lift the fish and myself up out of the water! I took a deep breath and once again tried to step up onto the boards and only with gargantuan effort was I able to do so. Naturally it was at this point I realised I might have underestimated my vanquished beast; it was a lot bigger than I had thought.
The great fish turned out to the the biggest in the lake and tipped the scales at 62lb 14oz - an immaculate, dark and powerful carp that hadn’t been banked since the previous summer.
PIC14: The biggest in the lake on a single rod and a low chair - what a creature!
It was the icing on another superb trip and with Darren and Colin finishing on an incredible haul of 50 fish it will always remain truly memorable!