As another winter draws ever closer, those of us who continue to target carp during the colder months will be fettling around in our tackle boxes that little bit longer trying to perfect presentations to outwit a nice winter lump in its finest colours.
However, as the metabolism of the carp begins to slow, picking up those runs can be quite a challenging prospect and as such, at the onset of the first frost, many anglers make a sudden lunge to their rig boxes to concoct all kinds of strange combinations in a bid to stay one step ahead.
The thing is, before you tie up a new type of rig, what you should really do is stop and take a moment to ask yourself what it is you’re actually trying to achieve? In all honesty, the perfect rig is just like the perfect bait – it simply doesn’t exist. It’s quite easy to get bogged down in the internal mechanics of rig construction and, if you’re not careful, you’ll quite literally get yourself tied up in knots. The magazines will be full of winter carp rigs seemingly guaranteed to bag you a winter whacker, which is all well and good, but we see precious little written about the actual carp themselves and to me this is by far the most important aspect of winter fishing.
The best bit of advice I can give to those undertaking a winter campaign is to look at the bigger picture. Just for a moment, put aside what this ring swivel and that stop knot should do and concentrate on the behaviour of the carp themselves. Once you really understand exactly what it is you are up against during the winter, you may find your mindset on winter rigs changes completely – I know mine did!
My intention with this piece is not simply to look at rigs, it’s meant to help you get a better understanding of what’s actually going on beneath the surface. I think what people often forget during the colder months is that carp are still carp. When they do feed they do so in much the same way as they do in the summer and if you put your rig in the right place at the right time, you actually stand a better chance of getting a pick up as they can eat more in a single sitting than they do in the summer due to the higher levels of dissolved oxygen in the water.
Many anglers give carp too much credit and think that in winter they somehow have superhuman powers of rig evasion – this just isn’t the case. Between feeding spells they can often shut down completely for quite long periods, so when you turn up to fish, it’s not that they’re all super-spooky and rig shy, it’s just that many of the fish in the lake will be shut down. Just how shut down might really surprise you - if you think dead - you might not be too far off the mark!
My wake up call in this regard came many, many years ago whilst doing a work party on a shallow, silty, and quite tricky estate lake during the first week in March. Two of us were in a boat drifting over to a swim in the shallows to offload some materials. The whole top end of the lake was out of bounds during the winter, so it was interesting to see areas you didn’t usually see till the start of the season in June, especially in the gin clear water. Just as we were drifting up to a swim in the shallows in about two feet of water, I suddenly spotted a good mid-twenty pound fish half buried in the silt down to the side of the boat. My heart sank and both of us immediately took the fish as being dead. The bottom inch or more of its body was sunk into the silt, and it actually had a layer of silt and detritus all over it, so had been there some time. Under the rock of the boat its body lolled back and forth and we just sat looking on, totally despondent. I prodded the fish with the end of the oar to push it on its side in order that we could identify it. We decided it would be best to get it out to try and bury it, so I attempted to wedge the oar underneath it to lift it up of the bottom. I got the oar under it after a few prods, and then, just as we were about to grab hold of it to bring it onto the boat, the bloody thing suddenly came to life in the blink of an eye, and powered away leaving us totally covered in water. I honestly don’t know who got the biggest shock - us or the fish! I can honestly say that nothing has ever given me such a fright as when that fish came round. The fish was obviously in full health and it continued to grace the banks for many years after, but if you’d have seen it that day, you’d have sworn it was dead!!
I’ve since witnessed the same thing on a number of occasions, yet at exactly the same time there have also been other fish in the lake fully active, on the move and having a feed, so it’s not the case that all fish do the same thing at the same time. My own thinking is that fish continually drop in and out of these states right throughout the winter in line with their own individual metabolisms and the prevailing weather conditions at the time. So at times they’ll be semi dormant, at others they’ll be active.
So, for my winter approach it’s not about trying to tailor rigs to outwit shy feeding fish, it’s simply about tailoring rigs to effectively fish the areas where I think the fish that are awake will be having a mooch around – and each spot might require a different rig. Again, it always amazes me when anglers cast out to their chosen spots on rigs that have been pre-determined before set up, with absolutely no knowledge of what’s actually going on down on the lake bed!
In winter the lake bed can be totally different. Sometimes there will be less stuff down there, for example when weed has died back, or more stuff if it’s an area where leaf litter will fall or get blown before dropping to settle, thus its vital to do a bit of a recce to see what’s going on, as it may well be the case that spots quite close together require totally different rigs to offer the best presentation, and as such, you can’t simply say here’s a great winter rig to go out and use, as technically there’s no one winter rig that will suit all situations you might be faced with. It’s important to remember that any rig is only good for the manner for which it has been created, however, there are things that I do to ‘winterise’ my various stock rigs.
My winter carp rigs fall into one of two camps; confidence, or sit up and beg. The confidence rigs are those constructed with the intention of lulling the fish into a false sense of security; giving the impression that the bait is totally safe to sample and eat, whereas the sit up and beg rigs do the opposite; they are designed to stop the carp in their tracks, appealing to their inquisitive nature.
By and large, a confidence rig is usually one that incorporates a bottom bait, but during winter I’ll rarely use one straight out of the bag on a sinking link unless I’m 100% positive the bottom is totally clear. Your main enemy at this time of year is all the leaf litter that’s falling from the trees, so although you want it to sit nicely on the bottom, it has to sit on or above the litter so that it’s always presented perfectly - ready and waiting for when the carp do come along. Therefore, I favour a critically balanced approach.
To be honest, I like to use critically balanced baits throughout the year, the idea being that by lightening the weight of the hookbait, when inspected by a carp, it will waft around and act exactly the same as a free bait – despite the fact it’s got a rig attached. In summer I’d use a 2% cork-dust bottom bait or wafter on a standard rig, so that its sits nicely on the bottom, but come winter I’ll often switch to a pop up bait that’s shot-mounted on the hair, so that it wafts in the same way, but has more buoyancy in the hookbait to help it sit above any rubbish if it gets moved around by the fish.
To do this, I simply tie the hair on my rig half an inch longer than normal, then drop a shot onto the hair between the hook and the bait. When tying the hair to the hook, I do two turns on the shank then move the hair outward before doing another two turns, which pushes the hair away from the hook. Select a shot heavy enough so that when tied up (with the pop up mounted) it just sinks. Obviously, you need a hooklink that will sit nicely, and in winter guise I usually use a coated link with the core stripped back a couple of inches from the hook. In addition, I’ll add a couple of tiny blobs of putty along the link to ensure the main length won’t loop up off the bottom. This rig is ideal for any areas where there is a lot of leaf litter about, and a nice simple alternative to the chod rig, which every man and his dog seem to be using….
A 'sit up an beg' rig would utilise the same components as my confidence rig, pretty much, but would have a standard hair and the weight to hold it down would be on the length of hooklink itself - an inch or two from the hook. As a result, the hookbait will bob around and act pretty unnatural. But that’s the point; in this guise I’ll usually have a bright or highly flavoured pop-up hookbait on the end, which just screams at the carp to come and have a look. I favour this approach along patrol routes where I know the carp are likely to pass along, or in very shallow or clear water.
If I’m fishing onto a clean, hard bottom, I might well just use a standard fluorocarbon hooklink. I’ve had so many fish on this type of link that I use them summer or winter, just so long as I know the area I’m fishing into is clear. The key is not to suddenly change a productive set up just because the weather has changed – you should only change the rig if the conditions on the bottom have changed. If you have rigs that have been performing well all year, stick on them, but just be aware of what the bottom is like, and if there is a build up of leaf litter, then look at how you could adapt it with a wafting technique to get it up out of the litter.
The last essential addition to my winter carp rigs before casting out is a piece of PVA rig foam. Bury the hook deep into a piece of foam before casting out and it will ensure your hook remains clear of detritus. When the rig hits bottom, the link will be suspended on the foam until it breaks free, and then will gently drop down – perfect.