Watercraft; You’ve read about it, you’ve heard people talk about, but what does it really mean? And more importantly… how can you get some?
For me, watercraft means the skill in being able to read a water, or to be more precise, being able to read the fish within a water. As mentioned in the last piece, it’s no good having all the right tackle and bait if you then set up in a swim completely devoid of fish - You need to be able to narrow down all the options to give yourself the best possible chance of catching during your session.
As explained previously, successful carp angling is about getting lots of little things right and watercraft is no different. It’s about taking lots of little bits of information from every session you have fished, and then pulling them back out and threading them together to form a strategy when you’re next out on the bank. The difficult part is in knowing where to find the information and then deciding how best to use it. Again, there’s no one single thing that can improve your watercraft skills, rather a mix of information gleaned from many sources. So in this piece, I’ll try to explain what watercraft is all about and explain some of the principles involved that will help you get the most out of each session.
I think it was George Sharman’s ‘Carp and the Carp Angler’ where he said that it was better to have a bad plan than to have no plan at all. Possibly meaning that if you had a plan, even a bad one, then at least you were forming an opinion, and if that plan failed, then technically all you needed to do was identify where the failure occurred, refine it, and try again. In essence, that’s what watercraft is all about. It’s about taking all the things you have learnt about carp, the water you are fishing, climatic conditions and any other affecting factors, then trying to bring it all together into one salient mass for the session that lies ahead.
Watercraft; what’s it all about… and how can I get some!?
It’s no easy process and it’s not a skill which will come overnight but if you start applying the logic now, you will quickly feel the benefit and the long road ahead won’t seem quite so daunting. Watercraft is something you never stop learning - you add more to it with each session you fish, and the longer you have been fishing the more experiences you are able to draw upon.
There are many different aspects to watercraft. First you need knowledge of the quarry itself; its habits, characteristics and life-cycle. You also need to learn how everyday changes in climatic conditions and angler pressure can affect carp behaviour. Once you understand the quarry, you then need to understand it in relation to its habitat. This is perhaps the single most important aspect of watercraft - knowing where to find the fish is what it’s all about!
So where do we start? Well, first we need to understand a little more about the carp itself. It sounds daft, but if you want to catch big carp and catch them consistently, then you need to think like the fish you are trying to catch! Many people perceive a carp to be a swimming dustbin that only has to see a pile of bait and it’s straight on it. Whereas, in reality, we have to remember that in fish terms, the carp is quite an intelligent creature with quite a well developed brain; anybody who has watched a wary carp feeding at close range will know just what I’m talking about!
Carp are capable of a number of thought patterns. In the main, these patterns appear to be governed by a sort of short and long term memory. The fish relies predominately on the long term memory part of the brain for going about its day to day business. Basically, the way I’ve come to see this is that a carp takes in lots of short term memories, which, after conditioning (the same thing happening time and time again) become long term memories. The question is; how can we use this to our advantage? Well, have you ever wondered why pre-baiting works? It’s exactly the same thing - by supplying a constant source of free food with no danger aspect (i.e. no hook bait) the carp will pass short term memories back to the brain on each sitting saying that all is ok within the area, until eventually it becomes conditioned and they then begin to see it as a constant source of risk free food.
My own view however, is that carp will always be able to attach a degree of risk to feeding in any area, but by conditioning we are able to lower its guard. Long term conditioning on a regularly fished water will tell the carp that within the lake itself, there is always a risk that it is being angled for, but by providing this constant source of free food it thinks this particular area, for now, is safe. Once you begin to fish the area the carp will begin to wise up and after a time the spot may well dry up as the short term memory feeds into the long term memory telling the carp that, after being caught there or being around other spooky fish that have been caught there, that this area is now not safe to feed in, and so the cycle goes.
Get to know your quarry; its lifestyle and its environment
What else do we need to know about the carp? Well, in terms of feeding we need to understand that its primary feeding habits are controlled by the daily cycle of life; the onset of day & night, and the surrounding climate. I don’t want to get too much into the feeding aspect here as we’ll cover this in the bait section. However, in terms of watercraft you need to understand that the primary need of the carp is food in order that it can maintain itself. This does not mean it will eat whatever is placed in front of it (unless competition for that food dictates it) as one of its other inherent characteristics is for its own security. What I’m getting at here is that it’s down to the carp when and where it wants to feed - not you. You can do all you like to add attractors and such like to your bait, but if the fish does not want to eat, it won’t. That said, I’ve found carp to be very inquisitive by nature; any seasoned stalking angler will tell you exactly the same thing. I would say over 90% of my catches when stalking are due to the carps inquisitive demeanour when it comes across the bait rather than the fact that it’s hungry and is looking for something to eat. Apply a shed load of bait and often the guard will go straight up. However, a single wiggling lob worm dropped right in front of its nose is an entirely different matter; carp seem unable to resist further investigation.
Many people also assume that all carp are exactly the same and think alike. As far as inherent characteristics go I don’t doubt it. However, my own experiences and those of others around me suggest that each fish can be very different. On the Capesthorne Estate where I have watched the same group of carp for many, many years, you begin to see that each fish has its own character, just like you or I - some are really bold and are always first on the scene to see what’s going on, others are more reserved and always tend to hold back. You also notice that the bigger fish often have a little sidekick whom they tend to let feed first before they decide whether to partake. Information like this is invaluable in relation to planning your attack on a chosen water or a particular big fish.
The key here is observation - and lots of it. Spend time getting to know how the carp live in the water you are fishing and you are half way to catching them. There are a couple of different scenarios you will be faced with when it comes to getting to know the fish, mainly with regard to the type of session you are planning - Is it a one off trip to a new water, or is it a new water which you intend to be spending a lot of time on?
For the purpose of the article I’ll work through examples of both. Firstly, let’s take a water that you intend to be spending quite a bit of time on. Firstly, you need to be aware that not all aspects of watercraft are carried out on the bank. If you really want to get to grips with the fish in a particular lake, you should do some homework. The more you can find out about the lake and its occupants, the easier the fishing becomes. The first thing I would do is ask around in the local tackle shops to see if anybody knows anything, then I would check out the internet. There are literally thousands and thousands of websites devoted to fishing, fisheries and clubs. Find out if the water you intend to fish has its own website, and if it does start emailing them to find out as much as you can about the water. If there is no website, ask about on a fishing forum, somebody somewhere is bound to know something. Also, find out if it is controlled by a club, if so, do they hold regular meetings? If they do, get yourself down there, you’d be amazed at the snippets of information you can pick up. Don’t be shy - ask questions. You are basically looking to gain some shortcuts here. Starting a campaign on a new water can be a little daunting and the more info you can obtain at the start, the quicker you’ll get results.
Do your homework; rarely will big fish come and find you!
OK, you’ve done the background work, now it’s time to hit the bank. To start off with I would head down to the venue armed with a map of sorts, polarized glasses, binoculars, pad, pen, compass and feature finding rod. My feeling is that if you try to do your reconnaissance when you are actually fishing a proper session, you are likely to get too bogged down in the swim you are fishing to bother doing your homework properly. That said, I fish a system where I can quickly slip a hooklink onto my set-up, so I would also take a net, mat, and other essentials, so that if I happened upon a fish that was just gagging to be caught, I’ve got everything there with me - but the aim here is to travel light. Your main purpose is to get a feel for the place and try to identify some choice swims.
It helps to make a map, brief at first, then you can make a detailed one back at home which you can keep adding to with each session/swim you fish. Firstly you are just looking to get a rough feel for the underwater topography and layout. Work one swim at a time and make a few tentative casts around with the feature finding set up (If you are not sure how to set up and use a feature finding rod, read this guide). Don’t get too tied up in each swim to start off with, just make a few casts around to get a feel for the depth, type of lake bed, obvious features within the swim and the margins. Make notes of anything of interest and move onto the next swim. Be aware of other anglers and be considerate as you don’t want to be disturbing their fishing. If there are any trees around make sure you get up them!! - You’d be amazed at how much more you can see from just a few feet up as the amount of glare on the surface diminishes the higher up you are - polarized glasses are a must as they cut out the surface glare and help you to see under the surface of the water. They are not expensive and most tackle shops stock them, alternatively there are loads on eBay - just make sure you get some with UV400 protection as these will also block out the suns harmful rays that can damage your eyes.
Whilst casting around and climbing up trees, just what is it you’re looking for? Well, you are looking for places which the carp will feed and move through, or even hang around in. In the main, I’ve found that carp are usually found doing one of four things; travelling, feeding, playing or resting. The travelling is simple enough as they are often moving to or from a play or feeding area. The feeding areas are more difficult to spot, but by plotting on the map areas where you constantly see fish moving you can begin to work out where they are moving to and from, which in turn helps to narrow down potentially productive areas for further investigation (This technique of plotting helped me locate a very small feeding area almost completely covered by Lilly pads on one lake; after further investigation I was able to apply bait to the spot and took countless specimen fish that season from the area without anybody else even knowing that it existed!). The other aspects are playing and resting - where the fish are just hanging around sitting motionless on top or slopping about making sudden movements and grouping with other fish in certain areas. On many waters I’ve found they do this at certain times of the day and often in the same places - many lakes can have a number of these places and climate/conditions on the given day will often give a clue as to which of these areas you will find them in.
Working out patrol routes and carp movements will bring handsome rewards
So what makes a holding or feeding area? It could be lots of things; it could be somewhere where they feel secure like a snaggy area, or a weedbed or even under Lilly pads. It could be somewhere they like to eat, perhaps where there is an abundance of natural food like bloodworm, snails or crustaceans. It could be a feature within the lake where there is a change in depth or sediment makeup like the shallow water of the margins, or the shelf around an island. The truth is that there may be hundreds of places in a lake that ‘could’ be fish holding areas, but investigation is needed as these areas can often be different from one water to the next. That said; Lilly pads, islands, shelves and bars are always worth investigation on any water. But do be careful as a feature which immediately jumps out to you as being a ‘hot-spot’ has probably jumped out at every other angler that has ever stood on the same peg and thus the fish may have attached a good degree of danger to baits placed in such areas.
Once you have located a few potential spots that you feel might be worth fishing, either from observations or from what you’ve found with the feature finding set-up, it’s time to get fishing. But here’s the golden rule - DON’T PICK A SWIM BEFORE YOU GET TO THE LAKE! Without doubt, this is the single biggest mistake that beginners tend to make on every session. It may well be the hot swim, or the one that looks most ‘fishy’ or the one that some bloke had five fish out of the last time you were there - but what good will it do you if all the fish are now parked-up at the opposite end of the lake?
On EVERY session, ALWAYS have a good look around before you decide where to set up - Even when you are convinced you think you know where they are. It’s a routine you MUST get yourself into, as you’d be amazed how often you come into the most unlikely swim on the lake and bingo - there they are, right in front of you just begging to be caught. If you go away with just one thing from reading this article; make sure this is it!
Finding the fish is what it’s all about, and no matter how big the water or how well I know it, I will always have a good look around, and even if I’m only fishing for say three or four hours, I may still spend an hour or more looking around to ensure I pick a swim that offers the maximum chance of a result. Beginners often tell me that they find it difficult to spot carp on their chosen lake, and yes, it can be difficult when you start out. But do stick at it - you will soon learn to tell the difference between the actions of carp and other coarse species. What I do notice however, is that those who often say it on the bank are those who have never climbed a tree to look down on their swim or used a pair of Polarized Glasses. Often I’ll lend them mine and literally tell them to climb a tree near the swim and look down over the area they are fishing. The look on their faces when they come back down is a real picture - it’s as if a whole new world has just opened up in front of them. It’s often the case that the next time I see them, they are stuck up a tree looking down at a group of fish through their new set of polarized glasses!
If you spot a tree - get up it; you’ll be amazed at what you can see!
The point I’m making is that it’s not really that difficult so long as you have the right tools for the job. From trees or the ground you are looking for the same thing, the tell tale signs of carp. Look for the dorsal fins of cruising carp, often trailing a bow wave like a boat. They could be sat motionless with just their backs breaking the surface; again only a decent amount of time spent looking around each swim will find these stationary carp. Also look for swirls or boils on the surface where a carp has made a sudden movement - and don’t ignore the margins! Even on the murkiest of waters you will still be able to spot carp with polarized glasses, you can usually see at least six or eight inches under the surface - more than enough in most cases.
You need to see yourself as a bit of a tracker because even if you can’t see the fish itself, you can often find evidence that they have been in the area recently. If the lake bed is clouded up on the bottom for example. You will soon learn to differentiate these signs from other forms of wild life and begin to get a feel for the areas the carp are happy in. Carp can also be quite noisy at times. Often they will leap or crash or you may hear slurps and sucking as they investigate items on the surface.
Again, I get a lot of youngsters and novices coming up to me on waters telling me they can’t spot anything and fish are nowhere to be found. Whilst there can be times when they simply aren’t playing ball, you can usually find something that gives them away - The key to spotting fish is stealth. It’s no good clomping around a lake wearing a bright white T-Shirt and expecting to spot fish in every margin you peer into. Be quiet, calm and light on your feet and believe me, the carp will come to you! Carp will visit almost every area in a lake, and that includes the margin right in front of your rods. The only thing that will stop them visiting such areas is bankside disturbance, either visual and audible.
Quite often people will make noise as they walk around a venue and then suddenly quieten down as they approach a swim - too late. You should be quite ALL the time if you want to find the fish. If you stay still, quiet, and camouflaged, the fish will often slide straight into view, inches from the bank without having the slightest clue you are there. I’m not saying you should immediately go out and deck yourself head to toe in Realtree - far from it. But do ensure that you always wear clothing that won’t stand out. I always favour dark green clothing as it blends with most things. When you are in a swim, don’t stand right in the middle waving hands about, pointing and shouting to your mate in the next swim that you can see one on the far bank - keep it zipped at all times and if you do talk, do it in hushed tones - Rarely is there a need to shout. If you keep to the edges of a swim you won’t stand out on the skyline and thus you are much less likely to spook fish. If there is a bush or tree next to the swim, get right up against it as these will be shapes the fish are used to seeing and they won’t spook.
Stealth is a very important aspect of successful carping - stay quiet and stay hidden as much as possible. Can you spot my bivvy?
Stealth is one of the most important tools in the specimen anglers’ armoury - and it costs absolutely nothing!! If you can prevent a fish detecting you before you detect it - then you’ve cracked it. The whole point is to try and catch them with their guard down - and if they don’t know you are there, then obviously you have the upper hand.
Setting up should be exactly the same approach. I see many people setting up bivvies and equipment as if on a building site; banging and crashing, hammering in bivvy pegs and shouting to a friend in the next swim about the previous weeks events since they last saw each other; you may as well forget it! The fish will return, but you’ve lost the upper hand. For me, the first few hours of a session can be the most important. If I’ve just spent an hour walking around to find them, and they are now all in front of me, the last thing I want to do is scare them all away as I set up!
The above principles should be adopted each time you visit the water. In doing so, with each trip you will begin to see (and learn) more and more. When I’m out on a session I tend to keep a log or journal. Nothing fancy, I just take a pad with me and note down basic information like temperature, wind direction, and general conditions. I make notes of any fish I spot and any I bank. You’d be amazed how valuable this information can be as you get to grips with a new campaign - especially when you’re back at home - you’d be surprised at some of the patterns that can emerge.
It’s often the case that the information reveals the best areas and times to fish throughout the year. Again, watercraft is about using any information at your disposal. I also find it helps to get down to the water as often as possible - even if I’m not fishing. There really is no substitute for observation on a water and the more time you can spend there the better - even if it’s only ten minutes on the way home from work.
Such principles are all well and good if it’s a water you will be fishing on a regular basis - you can hone your skills as the season unfolds, but what if you are planning a one off trip to a new water that you’ve never fished before? Well, the theory is exactly the same - you just need to refine it to maximise your chances on a short session. Let’s assume you are visiting a water of two or three acres that you’ve never seen before, arriving mid-afternoon and fishing for 24 hours.
First things first, do your homework. It’s unlikely you will have less then 24 hours notice for the session, so again, ring around and get on the web to try and find a bit of advice for the venue. You have to be careful what you listen to. The key here is to take on board what people say about swims, methods, or approaches - but don’t let it rule your judgement on the day.
On arriving at the water you want to have a good look around before you even get the gear out of the car - remember the golden rule: ALWAYS have a good look around before you decide where to set up. First of all I’d grab a rod and have a good look in each swim looking for signs of fish. On swims that look to have good potential I would have a quick cast around - just to confirm depth and bottom ensuring nothing is going to take you by surprise should you decide to set up on the peg. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve fished with mates who have made the fatal mistake of choosing a swim on looks alone. They spend an hour setting up the bivvy and rods, and only on casting in a lead do they realise they are fishing in a mass of weed when the rest of the lake is clear, or find they have got fifty feet of water in front of them. The best one was a trip to Oxfordshire on a water we’d not fished before. A lad fishing with us set up in what looked to be a nice swim just behind an island in a nice little bay. It was October time - cold, wet and windy. There was a bit of a chop on the water but the swim looked fishy. After an hour setting up in the rain he was ready to cast out; at which point he found out to his cost that the whole of the bay was only about seven inches deep!! And no, he’s never lived it down… You have been warned!
Hopefully, as you make your way around the lake you will see some signs of activity in certain swims or an area that might indicate where the fish may be. You are looking for signs of fish, but not just that. If I’m only on for a short session I want to know that the swim I pick has got the best potential of offering a fish in the limited time I have available. I may spend as much as a couple of hours looking around before deciding on a swim. You may think this is excessive if you are only spending a short session on the water - but believe me, the more time you spend watching a water in advance the better your chances when you do eventually wet a line. I’ve fished with people who pick a swim within minutes of arrival at a water and they’re set up with lines in and a brew in hand before I’ve even done a lap of the lake. It may be another hour after that before I cast a line in. But nine times out of ten I’ll be the first one to catch a carp - often within the first hour or so of casting out. Many people I fish with think some of my successes are down to luck and the fact I manage to drop into ‘going-swims’ without knowing it. Although I don’t deny luck can play a part, the reality is that I spend more time working things out before committing to anything.
Swim selection - Picking the right swim at the right time is vital
I would say seventy percent of anglers on an average water spend no more than five minutes deciding where they are going to fish - irrespective of weather they know the water or not. For me it’s no coincidence that the remainder who put much more time into their choice of swim tend to catch more fish! As highlighted earlier, you need to get up some trees, stick your head through a few bushes - try and get to the spots that others will simply overlook, either through lack of experience or sheer laziness. If it’s a water I’ve not fished before, I will often concentrate on what appear to be the most overlooked swims first. If there is a swim that looks as if it’s a bit of a ball ache to get your gear round to, or one that would be really awkward to get your bivvy in - that’s the first swim I’d tend to look at to try and find carp off their guard - simply because not many will fish it and carp may well feel more secure in these areas. The point I’m making is that you should discount nothing until you’ve had a good look around. And when you do discount a swim, make sure it’s because there are no fish in it - not because you would not be able set your bivvy up nice and neat!
If I find a swim that looks as if it may have some potential but I’ve not yet viewed the rest of the lake, I’ll often trickle a little bit of bait in. I’m not talking about firing in a ton of boilies; usually no more than a handful of particle mix will suffice. Basically, if it looks really ‘fishy’, then logic dictates that a fish should soon come along. I’ll then keep moving and may repeat the process a couple of times before I’ve done a full lap of the water. If by that time I’ve not come across a swim full of fish, I’ll then move back around to the swims where I’ve put a little out and see what’s developed. You’d be amazed at just how often this tactic works - I really can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve come back to one of these spots to find a fish, or in many cases a number of fish mopping up the bait. Basically it’s short session stalking tactics; trickle a little bit of bait in here and there and see what happens.
Clear spots and feeding areas can be much more visible from above
It’s not always easy to figure out where these spots might be. However, what I would say is that they are quite often where you would least expect to find them. I would be looking for areas that just seem a little irregular - free of weed, pads, or silt. Little spots where the bottom looks different to the area immediately surrounding it. Often the bottom looks as if it’s been swept clear, and often it has… by big greedy carp! Broken shells or debris from snails, swan mussels and crustaceans can be a dead giveaway. These spots can often be quite clear and many who don’t look around properly will miss them. As we covered earlier - get the polarized specs on and climb some trees. At the end of the day it is down to you to find them, they won’t go out of their way to find you!
Don’t dismiss the margins either, a massive amount of my fish come from baits placed within ten feet of the bank - even on waters where the ‘done-thing’ is to cast as far as your rod will withstand. It’s often the case that people are so busy casting to the heavens that they miss all the activity under their feet. I’ve yet to find a water where fish don’t come right into the margins. What’s more, you’re always guaranteed better presentation close in - just keep quiet and well away from the rods.
Ignore the margins at your peril. An early morning fish taken three feet from the bank
So let’s say you’ve found some fish, or at least a swim which looks to show signs of recent activity, what’s next? Well, a quiet set up is key. Again too many people rush the setting up not wanting to miss a second before getting the rods out. I’m the opposite. I will set up very slowly, making sure I’ve never got my back to the water for more than a minute at a time. I will constantly be scanning the swim for signs of activity, so that when I do finally cast out I’m confident my chosen spots offer the best possible chance of banking a fish.
Another thing to bear in mind is that the fish will tend to move about a great deal in any 24 hour period; much off their behaviour is conditioned by temperature, and temperature fluctuates in most areas with the onset of day and night (as the water is heated and cooled) thus, even if you do find them prior to setting up, the chances are they won’t remain there throughout. As such, when I do come across fish, I often leave setting up bivvies and such like and just get on with the fishing whilst they are there in front of me. It’s often the case that I will fish with a friend and on finding the fish in a certain area we’ll decide on swims close to each other. Often the friend will then go about setting up bivvies and camping gear before sorting the rods - I’m often the other way around. I will tend to grab a rod and go for the fish right away, having a bait in place within a couple of minutes of choosing the swim. It’s often the case (if you get it all right) that a fish will be banked quite quickly within the first hour or two, and in the same fashion it’s often the case that the fish can then move to a different area. The problem for my friend is that having already bivvied up, he is now tied to the swim - all I have to do is pick up my gear and move off with the fish.
Staying mobile accounted for the downfall of this specimen
Part of watercraft is this constant reassessing of the situation right throughout the duration of your session. You should be watching all the time from dawn till dusk. The trick is in being able to know when to effect the change - what you have to remember is that what may have been right when you set up, might have changed completely just a few hours later. You need to keep reviewing your strategy. Yes it might be a pain to break all the gear down and move round to the other side of the lake, yes it might be raining and blowing a gale, but as I’ve said before, the bigger fish very rarely make it easy for you. Nearly every big fish I’ve caught I’ve had to work hard for, especially up North! But I still maintain the reward far outweighs the hardships, even in the most extreme cases. The key here is to travel light. Wherever possible I try to ensure I can carry all my kit in one go with relative ease, even if I’m on for a few nights, that way a move is no big deal. I remember setting up in Capesthorne shallows one afternoon in early October after finding a few fish milling around in the margins. Nothing happened until about 2am when I heard a good fish boshing out at the other end of the lake in the bay. After hearing the boshing another half a dozen times over the next twenty minutes I decided to get out of bed, reel in the rods, and go and have a look. Sure enough the fish were going mental - to this day I have no idea why! What I did know was that I only had about another eight hours to go until I had to leave and as such, I decided to move swim - there and then at nearly three in the morning! The result was a brace of stunning mid-twenty mirrors before it even came light! The question is, would I have caught those two fish if I’d have stayed up in the shallows and simply rolled over and gone back to sleep? I doubt it very much. Perhaps an extreme example, but you get my point.
Big fish don’t come easy - you need to be on the ball throughout your session
You should never be scared to reel in and have a walk around - it’s part of my every day routine when fishing. You rarely know what’s going on in other areas of the lake that are out of view unless you go and have a look. Again, for me its stalking tactics I’m always looking for the next opportunity to present itself.
It’s all a case of effort. You will only get out what you put in. If you want to set up in a swim for a weekend with every luxury around you and relax without lifting a finger, fine, I’m not going to criticise you for it - there is the odd occasion when I’m like that myself, but for the most part I’m there to catch fish - so for me, staying glued to ones bivvy behind motionless swingers is not going to help. Yet so many do it week in week out… It’s beyond me!
I hope some of the information in this piece will act as a good incentive to get out there and get to grips with your chosen water. None of the methods or principles involve expensive gear, it’s more to do with knowing your quarry and its habitat. The more time you put in now, the easier your fishing becomes in the future.
So the next time you are sat behind silent buzzers, ask yourself a few basic questions; am I doing all I can to maximise my chances on this session? Do I know the spots in my swim where the fish are likely to be, and of utmost importance - are they there right now?
If the answer to any of the above is no, then it’s time you started to think a bit more about your fishing.
In the next piece we’ll tackle the minefield that is bait, until then…