Specimen carp fishing can be a tough game at the best of times, but as we move into winter things can get even harder as the metabolism of the carp drops in accordance with the water temperatures and, as a result, they feed less often.
Many carp anglers hang up their rods when the water temperature gets down to five or six degrees, only to return to the banks in spring, but whilst banking decent fish in such conditions is always a challenging prospect, there’s nothing quite like a big carp in its winter colours, and if you’ve really had to work hard to earn it – so much the better!
That said, winter fishing does not have to be about endurance. I know some anglers who carry on fishing the same way in winter as they do in summer without really adapting their approach to suit the conditions around them, and to be honest, it looks painful!
You have to remember that fishing at any time of year should be fun and enjoyable. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been through plenty of winter campaigns in the past where I’ve begun to question my own sanity, fishing session after session without a result, but I’ve always enjoyed every second of it and never lost sight of the goal - no matter how challenging the conditions during the session, on the way home I’d already be planning and refining my approach for the next time out!
As such, I’d say the key to successful winter fishing is to stay mentally active. For me, there’s no point in being there just for the sake of it, and I see many anglers just going through the motions without really thinking about what they are doing – there in body, but not in mind. Many will emerge from a sleeping bag to rebait a rod as quickly as possible before jumping back in the sack and going back to sleep – no matter what time of day – and that’s it for another eight or nine hours; no watching the water, no effort made to improve the chances of catching. Little surprise they often go home empty handed, but you’ll often hear them say how it was to be expected due to the conditions – when, in fact, it was to be expected due to their failed approach and lack of mental aptitude. In such circumstances, they really would be better off staying at home!
So, how to plan the perfect winter session? Well, that’s just the thing, there’s no one single thing you can do that’s suddenly going to make you catch every time out. However, if each time out you are constantly looking for the opportunities and keeping yourself mentally active, then your chances of banking a big winter fish will increase dramatically.
For me, the most important aspect of winter carp fishing is to pick your moments, by which I mean to combine all your available knowledge of locations, bite times and expected weather conditions to try and work out good times to fish. For any number of reasons, carp in different waters may like to feed at certain times. Sometimes these ‘bite times’ remain constant, or due to changes in pressure, natural food availability or weather conditions, may change at different times of the year. Therefore, the first thing I try to do is stay in touch with these bite times.
I’d then try to plan my sessions in to correspond with these times. I know some peoples time on the bank can be selective in this way – my own included – which means it’s even more important to find the bite times, as there’s no point doing quick overnighters on a water where the majority of winter fish come out during the day, and vice versa. As such, it’s often a case of picking a water where your allotted time on the bank fits in as best as possible with the times when fish are known to come out during the winter.
Also critical is location. The general consensus is that fish will always head to the deeper water in winter, and whilst this can often be the case, it’s by no means the rule and thus watercraft becomes key – observation is everything! Fish spotting at this time of year can be a hard fought game, but it’s worth persevering; time spent in reconnaissance is rarely wasted. Whilst in many ways carp can be predictable, they can also throw you some proper curve balls and will quite often do the things we least expect. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve found carp in the shallowest parts of the lake even when there’s frost on the ground and cat ice in the margins… so keep an open mind.
Most of my fishing at the moment is quick 10-12 hour overnighters, so during the winter it can be a very tough game as you arrive in the dark and leave just after it’s come light. Therefore, it’s impossible to try to find the fish when I get there, but when I pack up in the morning I will always spend time having a good look around different areas of the lake to look for signs of fish. You’d be surprised just how often you see signs of activity, and these are always logged to the mind and help form a strategy for the next time out on the bank.
Last, but not least, is the weather. During winter, the slightest of changes in the weather can make a big difference, but it’s often worth thinking ahead and again, picking your moments. If it’s been freezing for a week and then it jumps a few degrees, don’t suddenly grab the gear on the day it happens – give the changes time to take effect. The water temperature does not work in exactly the same way as the air temperature and tends to follow a few steps behind, so the best time to take advantage of a rise in temperature is often a day or so afterwards when the body of water has had time to absorb the changes. It’s in these situations that I’ll often pay close attention to shallower areas. The water temperature on the bottom in the deeper areas will remain pretty constant throughout the winter, but it’s the upper layers where you get the most change, so again by following what’s going on with the weather you can often work out what kind of conditions might be likely to get them having a mooch around.
The most important part for me is keeping the grey cells ticking over whilst on the bank, and the best way of doing this is staying warm and active. For me, the worst thing you can do is dive in the pit and stay there. Not only do you have no idea what’s going on from a fishing point of view, but your body will effectively shut down, as when exposed to cold temperatures the body self regulates by restricting bloodflow to outer regions (hands, feet, etc) and directs it to all your internal organs.
Therefore, the best way to keep warm during winter sessions is to eat energy rich food – and lots of it – which will generate heat production. Most important of all is to stay active. Get up out of your bed every hour and have a walk around and get the muscles working. Studies have shown that up to three quarters of the body’s heat is generated from active muscles - so keep moving! A good layered clothing system to retain the heat produced is an obvious must, but that’s a subject in its own entirety so check my other articles in this regard.
If you can bring all of these factors together on each trip out, the chances of grabbing a winter fish are much more likely. The attached picture shows lovely Priory looking resplendent in its winter colours, banked on quick overnighter when I had everything in place for the water's ‘bite time’, which in this case was an hour after first light.