'ASSAILED BY DOUBT, WRACKED BY FEAR’
You might be thinking this is a rather strange title, exaggerated maybe, but these were the kind of feelings I had when a French friend of mine suggested I visited him in early January for session on a very open 350 acre water in Central France.
I don’t intend writing about that session; it didn’t go well. It was my first winter session in France, albeit some years ago now, but I consider I learned a lot and many subsequent winter sessions have been extremely successful.
I suppose when we refer to winter carping we are looking at November to the end of February time. Obviously, the further south you go in France, generally the warmer it gets, but it’s still significantly colder than the very hot summer months.
Other than a few winter sessions at Cassein, most of my winter trips to Europe have been on big waters in Central France, where the temperatures are normally only a few degrees higher than the UK. I have had many sessions out of the ‘winter bracket’, specifically early on in the year where conditions have been bitterly cold with severe winds and pouring rain. The content of this piece can be applied to those conditions too.
It’s important to make sure you are 100% prepared before attempting to go to France in these kind of conditions and, hopefully, this article will give you a brief guide of what is required in a step by step format.
If you don’t prepare and plan your trip fully it will, more likely, be an uncomfortable experience and, worse still, a blank! As I’ve stated before, it’s a long and expensive way to go and blank.
OK, let’s get stuck into it.
The correct choice of water is absolutely vital. It’s probably not such a good idea to go to a water about which you know absolutely zero. If you’ve been fortunate enough to fish a water in France during the summer months and done OK, then this is probably a good start – you know the layout and you know it holds catchable fish. There are also now obviously a lot of commercial venues/organised trips running right through the winter months, all regularly advertising in the various carp publications. Although not my cup of tea personally, there are many great venues to choose from.
I tend to go smaller venues during the colder months. I guess this sounds pretty obvious, but it’s a damn sight easier locating carp in 150 acres than in 5,000 acres.
We’ll look at location and fish movement in a short while. but remember our friend Mr. Carp doesn’t like moving about too much during the cold.
Another factor worth considering is in the depth of water. It’s a good idea to steer clear of the very deep barrages as the water in these places will take a hell of a longer to warm up than a shallower, say up to 15 feet, lake subjected to a bit of sun and a warmish breeze.
Smaller venues are also generally more sheltered than the huge, open expanses of water such as Orient, Chantecoq and St. Croix, where the literally hurricane force freezing winds blow up, making fishing exceptionally difficult. It’s always worth checking with the Telecom weather forecast several times before you set off, right up to your point of departure, so that you have an accurate feel of both temperatures, wind and general weather conditions.
PREPARING YOUR EQUIPMENT
Being warm, dry and comfortable are the three most important things to me when on a winter session anywhere and especially so when many hundreds of miles away from home. It is essential that you take enough gear with you for any eventuality; it’s far better to have too much gear than not enough!
A good bivvy is essential; ensure you have adequate pegs and guys so the thing is sturdy in the event of strong winds. The Nash Titan Viper is a great bivvy, as is the Fox Evolution bivvy or Easy dome variety. Some waters do not allow bivvies, (even in winter!) so a good umbrella is required, such as the Nashy Oval plus or Fox Evolution.
A warm sleeping bag is a must. I use an ex-Army ‘Mummy’ style bag filled with down and then cover this with a sleeping bag cover which is waterproof. It is worth taking a spare sleeping bag, just in case your other bag gets wet. Sleeping bags can take a very long time to dry out in winter if they get soaked. The Tails Up Goliath 5, Sundridge Heat Control 11, Fox Extreme 5 season sleeping bag or Rod Hutchinson Deep Sleep II are amongst the best sleeping bags on the market at present for carpers but beware, they are not cheap!
One piece suits – absolutely essential. Up to a couple of seasons ago, I swore by the Rod Hutchinson cyclone suit, which is excellent. Max Cottis then persuaded me to try the then new Fox fully-breathable suit. Need I say more? As you expect from Fox, it’s an excellent first class product and I recommend it.
Friends of mine are also giving great reviews to the ‘ESP’ Tough and Warm range of winter clothing, so worth a look too. Plenty of warm clothes; a woolly hat (as most heat is lost through your head); warm, thick socks etc. Obviously, all are essential and should be just a matter of common sense. A good pair of boots, such as Skeetex, are also a must and, if you have them, a pair of waders to use when casting, putting fish back etc.
With regard to the actual fishing tackle, well, this can remain the same as for your summer sessions.
I can’t recommend what food you take, as we all have different taste, but I would suggest you take a decent cooker with plenty of fuel. I’ve found a double cooker the best bet – such as the Coleman version. It is essential to have a regular supply of good, hot food and drinks.
LOCATION / FISH MOVEMENT
In the winter months, location is not easy. The fish’s metabolism slows down and they don’t show themselves anywhere near as much as in the warmer months. Fish movement becomes very localised with perhaps only a couple of feeding spells per day, lasting only a short period of time. This is why it is essential to ensure baits are presented in the right place at the right time.
If you spend enough time scouring the water with the Echo Sounder, you’ll get a good feel for the right place. The right time will only be apparent once you start catching.<
Snags and weed are good places to start, carp seem to hang around them. Whether it’s the cover they offer or limited natural food during the winter months, I don’t know but, from experience, they have proved a good starting point.
The main problem, especially with big French waters is, obviously, locating the fish. Once I’ve arrived at my chosen venue, before I even consider getting the gear out of the car, I spend several hours either walking or driving around the lake, looking for obvious signs, such as leaping fish, holding areas like lily beds, weed beds and islands which look as though they may have patrol routes around or between them. You know the sort of thing I mean. These can, of course, be more difficult to see in the winter as much of the vegetation has died off.
I also try to chat (hand signals if they can’t speak English!) with any other anglers present who, if they’ve been there for a few days, will be a good source of information.
If they are catching, it’s obviously worth trying the nicey approach and then jumping in the swim right next to them! If not, you know you are better off well out of their way so, either way, you can’t lose!
Anyway, normally in the summer when I’m tackling a venue, I tend to follow the wind, believing that a strong wind blowing into my face is a good place to start. My favourite bank is the east one, which gets south-westerly winds. However, in the colder months I am somewhat cautious as cold wind causes temperatures to reduce quicker than usual, I would therefore prefer to fish with the wind on my back.
With that in mind, before any of my visits, I am constantly checking the weather forecast for the right region I am going to. This forecast is updated daily and in depth, wind directions and speed, atmospheric conditions, and so on is extremely useful information.
Once I’ve found a suitable looking swim with, the first job is to get out on the boat with the echo sounder to see what is about. I use a Lowrance X – 25 echo sounder, which is fairly basic (and cheap), easy to operate and displays more than enough information for you to get a clear picture of the depth, bottom make up, snags and such like.
Once I’ve found and marked my chosen areas, whether they be clear spots in weed, plateaux, gravel bars, the edge of a big weed or just a prominent feature, it’s time to get back and sort out the bait and tackle.
One other thing to remember when considering a session on some of the big venues, such as Chantecoq in France, is that they are back up water supplies for some of the big cities, such as Paris, which means that the level of water in the lake will fluctuate at certain times of the year.
If you are using a boat, don’t go out in your one piece or waders; make sure you wear a lifejacket.
In winter, a lot of the summer weed growth dies away, leaving lakes fairly clear in relation to their summer condition. Your terminal tackle will need to be adjusted to suit this, although the rig can be similar. With less vegetation around, it is advisable to try disguise the rigs as much as possible.
This can be done in a number of ways: I tend to scale down size of hooks from a size 4 Fox to say a size 8 or 10; reduce the bs of hooklink from 20lb to 8 or 10lb, and coating your lead to be as near as possible to the actual colour of the lake bed you are fishing.
Reducing the size of the hookbait is also something worth considering (we’ll look more at bait, in depth, in a moment).
I’m not an expert on baits by any means, I prefer to use the knowledge of those who know, such as Bill Cottam of Nutrabaits, Steve Morgan of Mainline, D.T. Baits and Martin Locke of Solar etc.
I always use ready bagged mixes, my favourite for winter being the Dave Thorpe Cold Water Mix, Nutrabaits Hi–Nu–Val and SBS Quest. I am definitely a believer that a high quality milk protein base mix works best in winter.
I prefer fruity flavours, such as SBS’ Strawberry Jam, Nutrabaits’ Plum Nutrafruit and Solar Ester Cranberry.
As free offerings, I use 16mm diameter baits and scatter 10–15 around the hookbait. For hookbaits, I use either one or two 10mm diameter baits popped up one inch off the bottom. The ‘snowman’ presentation is also a good option.
I increase the flavour level in the hookbait mix slightly and also soak (glug) them in a mixture of Lunker Liquid and the appropriate flavour for a minimum of 24 hours before use.
Generally, baits are coloured yellow, orange or a very light creamy brown.
Baiting during winter needs to be kept to a minimum; a few boilies or a stringer and a handful of small particles, such as hemp will be enough. Don’t forget your pelletts too!! Bait is critical in winter; it’s worth spending an extra few pounds on the very best available, rather than settling for second best – after all, you don’t use that much bait during winter anyway.
To summarise, winter fishing in Europe is not easy, as we all know! If you prepare yourself well and plan your trip fully, the rewards can be excellent. You’ll find few anglers about as most tend to stick to the warmer months, April to October, but the feeling of holding a warm carp on a freezing day from icy cold water is fantastic.
Remember, you don’t have to be ‘Assailed by doubt and wracked by fear…’ when considering a winter session in France.
Chris 'Essex Man' Woodrow