If I was a decent sort of chap, who, thank the Lord I’m not sir, I would have written this article a month or two ago to forewarn you of the troubles that lie ahead. However, due to the mildest October/November period on record I decided you were probably far to busy ‘filling your sacks’ to take proper notice.
Now that the first frosts have hit and you’ve all had a blank or two under your belts I thought I’d take this opportunity to explain how to catch the little blighters now that winter drawers are on.
Firstly you reel in, go down the pub and wait until June!
Only joking, carp are not half as difficult to catch as you might expect, or have previously experienced, during the cold snap. Also you have the added bonus of ‘winter weights’, every nine-pounder is a 'double', every nineteen-pound-something is a 'twenty' etc
The primary consideration with winter fishing is keeping warm, several thin layers of clothing being preferable to a couple of thick ones. Eat plenty of hot food, drink lots of soup and tea; hypothermia is a very real danger that can come on very quickly with few telltale signs.
Also, NEVER be tempted to ‘go in’ after a snagged fish even if it’s a potential record breaker; the body reaction to freezing water can be potentially fatal – that means you could die, so don’t even think about it!
The next most important consideration is the venue; lakes that are ‘hard’ during the summer months become virtually impossible when the ‘brass monkeys’ season is upon us.
Lakes with low natural food and high stocks of our armour clad advisories are the prime targets. Carp are a very hardy and survivalist species and will feed at temperatures well below freezing if their lives depend on it. To prove the point, I fished in January at a particularly hungry water I know and caught a common on floating crust as the margins were turning to ice. It was about six or seven pounds, I didn’t bother to weigh it, but it confirmed what I had suspected.
On normally average waters I have found that holding areas and feeding areas can be miles apart in warm conditions but the carp show a reluctance to travel too far in the colder months, so fishing summer holding areas can produce a lot more than summer feeding areas. I think this is due to a primeval sense to conserve energy; the only energy fish derive is from what they eat, therefore swimming less distance to a food source will lower their nutritional requirements at a time when the natural larders are at their lowest levels.
Another finding seems to indicate that our quarry will be far more likely to feed in the daylight hours than the usual dawn and dusk bonanzas previously encountered, probably due to the bitterness of the night, but that may mean not having to endure those endlessly long nights if you play your cards right.
I have spent a lot time fishing twenty-four hour sessions right through December, January and February and, as I’ve got older and hopefully wiser, I now think this is not the best way to go about things. My results showed a pattern of very short feeding spells, usually around the same time each day. Experience now tells me a couple of long sessions early on give enough of an insight to the behavioural patterns of the fish to allow shorter sessions later on with very little difference to the overall catch rate.
Shorter sessions tend to be more intense, focussed affairs that lend themselves to cold weather carping better than the ‘snug-in-the-bivvy’ approach. Seven days of three-hour trips at the feeding spells will produce significantly greater results than a once weekly twenty-four hour session despite an actual fishing time difference of three hours.
With the practicalities of keeping warm sorted and the venue chosen, the next problem is what bait and how to present it. As for rigs, I recommend not having the lead directly on the line, helicopter and in-line styles are a no-no; use a short link ledger or paternoster. Bites are often very slow, timid affairs and the use of a light bobbin and indirect leads often show interest and activity around your baits a standard fixed set up would miss.
Baits in summer really don’t matter too much with big hungry carp swimming around on the prowl for a good nosh-up but in winter I feel the bait, and the baiting up, is probably the most crucial factor to success.
Rather than just give you a list of baits that work, allow me to explain why they work. Carp need less food during the colder months so smaller baits tend to work better as the fish don’t fill themselves up on ‘freebies’. However, to complicate things further, a large bed of bait works, as the carp are lazy, lethargic buggers at this time of year and need a bit of stimulation to create any interest. To overcome the contradiction of lots of bait to induce feeding against little bait to avoid over-feeding, the answer lies in flavoured breadcrumb. It creates a brilliant visual effect underwater without providing much sustenance; it also gets the smell into the swim.
I like to use spice flavourings in winter but saying that, I lean towards them in the summer time as well, so this may be more of a confidence thing for me rather than any kind of scientific fact about piscine tastes in cold weather! The type of flavour however is very important, as glycerol-based flavourings don’t disperse very well in low temperatures; the same also applies to oils. For this reason I will only use alcohol-based flavourings, which seep out regardless of how cold the water gets. Paste baits will work with greater effectiveness than their boiled counterparts for similar considerations.
Because of the tendency to sight feed at this time of year I always opt for brightly coloured baits, usually white, though if you use ready made boilies, yellow works just as effectively.
Okay, okay, enough of the theories... just use a known protein mix (Rod Hutchinson's works well) add a few drops of a good cinnamon flavouring, a spoonful of sugar, a couple of eggs, don’t bother with any colouring, roll into a stiff paste or smallish (10/12mm) balls and you’re away; they will catch, trust me.
Personally, I haven’t tried particle baits in the winter because I believe their strength is in encouraging pre-occupation within heavily feeding fish, all contradictory to the cold water behaviour of carp - but like I said, I haven’t tried it so I can’t really pass comment. However I do know that confidence is the biggest factor in ANY bait, so if you have a strong feeling about chickpeas or maple seeds etc. give them a whirl. If, by chance, you do empty the lake, be sure to tell me!