French Mud Wrestling

I stood back from the car, shivering with a silly grin on my face, the car was absolutely smothered in mud, both inside and out. I was dressed only in shorts, a damp tee shirt and a pair of soggy trainers; my tackle was soaked wet through, caked in mud and in need of some serious attention and, as well as that, not having slept for more than a handful of hours in the previous four days, I felt a complete wreck.

The only thought going through my mind was " Is this what fishing is really all about? Was it really all worthwhile?"

Well, let me explain….

I have fished in France now regularly for many years and the lake which we’d fished this time I had already fished before, the trip being in mid – August, earlier in the year. As it was now mid – October, I had expected the conditions to be slightly colder with an odd shower, but I had no idea what was in store for us.

On the August trip, I managed to do reasonably well, catching several thirties, but only managing a biggest fish of 31lb 10oz. I knew the lake in question held much bigger fish and, indeed, had seen many upper thirties caught by other anglers. My target on this trip was to try to get amongst the bigger fish and, hopefully, catch a fish of forty pounds plus.

As with all my trips to France, we had planned every detail to try to ensure a smooth running and successful session.

I knew the lake was drained slightly during the autumn months of the year for the Paris area and I was expecting the water level to be down a little. Never, in a million years, did I dream that the French used so much water!

I stood in front of the old derelict church, overlooking the lake, mouth open. What had, in August, been one of the most beautiful lakes in France, was now more suited for a family of wallowing hippos! Mud, mud and more mud, with what looked like a puddle way off in the distance.

To our right I noticed a couple of anglers set up, knee deep in mud, covering one of the areas I had intended fishing. Being a friendly sort of chap, I decided to drive round for a chat to find out how they were getting on. (My ulterior motive to find out when they were going!)

We drove round to the swim where they were fishing and waded through the mud to greet them. I noticed one of the chaps was using the full range of Fox equipment, bivvy, alarms, bedchair, pod, washing line – who could this be, I thought?!

Surprise, surprise, Cliff Fox emerged from one of the bivvies, covered from head to foot in mud!

Cliff was fishing with Max Cottis and they had done pretty well in their first three days. They had caught quite a few thirties, including two fish of just over forty and they were due to stay another four days.

Not wanting to waste any more time chatting, we said our farewells. We jumped into the car full of enthusiasm to fish further round on one of the mud flats on the opposite side of the bay, casting into the main section of what was left of the lake.

Only a couple of hundred yards down the track, the car decided it wanted to wallow in the mud and we spent the next couple of hours unloading all the gear and then trying to get the car out of the mud.

Eventually, we got it out and by late afternoon we were finally tackling up in our chosen swims.

By about 5:00 p.m., we were, at last, out on our boat with the echo sounder and markers, trying to find a reasonable area.

About 160 yards out, we found an area 18ft deep with a clear bottom, shallowing to 12ft about 60 yards closer in.

We opted to bait a triangular area, a method which has proved excellent in the past, the object of this being to bait the whole area covering a large expanse of water at all ranges.

As we were using four rods each, which you are allowed to do in this region of France, we would be able to put rods in all depths of water to ascertain at what range the fish would be feeding, both at night and during the day.

Next job was to get the area well baited and, knowing the enormous quantity of fish in the lake, we went to town. Our plan was to put in 80lb of Scopex boilies per night and 50lb of cooked maize. This probably sounds like an enormous quantity of bait to most people but anyone who knows the lake I’m referring to, will know that these fish will mop up that lot in no time and to have any chance of holding a shoal and making a multiple catch, you really do need a massive quantity of bait.

Boilies were supplied at an extremely competitive rate by Steve Morgan of Mainline Baits (cheers Steve!) and the maize was pressure cooked for half an hour and then left to soak for a minimum of 24 hours until reasonably soft.

As this lake has an abundance of crayfish, we chose to use rock hard (microwaved) pop-up hookbaits fished about 2 inches off the bottom, although this does not completely stop the crayfish attacking, it certainly gives you a fighting chance of keeping your hookbait intact.

The rig I had opted to use was very basic, but extremely functional and had proven itself not to tangle when cast at extreme range. With most of my rods, I rowed the hook baits out during daylight hours but as I didn’t fancy rowing about in pitch darkness, I intended casting the baits if a fish was caught late evening or early morning.

Enough technical detail – let me get back to the story.

As darkness finally set in, we had just managed to get our last rod out; I felt extremely confident. We intended to fish until about 11:00 p.m. each night and then from 5:00 a.m. in the morning, as night was not allowed on the lake at that time. The local Garde de la Peche have a nasty habit of visiting at some peculiar hours on this lake, thus it’s better to be safe than sorry.

After the hectic day, we were starving, so we set about cooking some grub. By now, with all the wandering about in the swim, we had really churned the mud up and it was difficult to walk, just getting the food from the boxes to the cooker was a real effort in itself!

We managed to knock up a curry and, as Sod’s law prevails, just as I sat down to eat it, the right hand rod roared off. I was only sitting about six feet away, but somewhere between the bedchair and actually getting the rod, I managed to lose a wader. As the water in front of me was very shallow, I had to wade out
to net the fish. In the process, I managed to lose the other wader, so I was now bare footed.

The fish put up a good fight for its size and a plump little mirror of 22lb graced my net. Not a monster, but worth catching. Fish were obviously now in the swim and it’s always nice to get one under your belt to boost the old confidence. Believe it or not, walking about bare foot was the easiest way in the mud and that’s how I stayed for the rest of the trip.

No sooner had I returned the fish to the water than one of the middle rods was off. This one felt much better and was plodding about showing all the signs of a big fish.

After about fifteen minutes, the fish was ready for netting. It was difficult to judge when exactly to lift the net in the darkness but I managed to land it first attempt.

As I lifted the net, I knew I had my first thirty of the trip. When weighed, the scales pulled round to 35 ½lb and I was well pleased. The fish was sacked in deeper water ready for photographing the following morning.

Before we finally wound in for the night, I had managed to land two other thirties of 31lb 8oz and 30lb 2oz plus a mid-twenty.

I was soaked wet through and freezing cold and all I could hope for was that it would warm up in the morning and give me a chance to dry out.

It was about 9:00 a.m. before we woke up and the swim was like a bomb had hit it – mud everywhere, soggy clothes trodden into it, half buried unhooking mats, a nice heap of curry all over the end of my bedchair and, to top it all, my bag of clean, dry clothes was sodden.

We photographed and returned the fish we had caught and set about clearing the bomb site. I didn’t care…three thirties in about five hours fishing – I was over the moon.

We repeated the baiting pattern and then set about cooking some more maize for the remaining three days.

The day passed uneventfully and the second night followed in much the same vein as the first, with me catching nine fish, including six thirties, the biggest weighing 39lb.

At first light, I recast all the rods, expecting another uneventful day and looking forward to a few hours kip. However, a couple of hours later, I was rudely awaken by a screaming optonic.

As I pulled into the fish, the rod was virtually wrenched from my grasp as what was obviously a very big fish steadily ploughed off towards the horizon.

After twenty minutes, I had still only managed to gain about fifty yards of line and I was beginning to think the fish might be foul hooked. Ten minutes later, the fish was almost mine and, in the clear water, I could see a really big mirror, definitely not foul hooked.

The fish rolled into my waiting net and, as I lifted my prize, I realised I had probably caught the biggest fish of the trip so far.

As the scales shot past the magical 40lb mark, finally settling at 44 ½ lb, the mud and cold paled into insignificance; I had achieved my target and still had one night left!

I didn’t bother fishing for the rest of that day as the tench had moved in on the baits and were becoming a pain, even managing to scoff 25mm diameter hookbaits.

The same incredible action followed on our final night, with me catching a further seven fish, including five thirties and yet another 40lb fish, weighing in at 41 ½ lb.

What an incredible session, my best ever French trip to date; no wonder I was grinning when we’d finally loaded the car ready to depart.

The total head count of fish I’d caught was six twenties, fourteen thirties and the two forties. I ask you, do you think it was worth it…?

Chris 'Essex Man' Woodrow - 2001