Sam Verstreken catches a quartet of big carp from a big Belgian pit...
Gaz Fareham – A Winter’s Tale
6th April 2020
Spurred on by the results of the October trip, and also some of the incredible big carp we had seen caught by our mates Tinpot and Damo, we decided on one last big trip for the year before the winter really kicked in.
We were supposed to be filming this trip as well, so the added pressure of that was in the mix as well. The weather hadn’t dropped away too dramatically and so we felt there was still a good chance of a big un or two from the 800 acre reservoir, especially with it being deep we felt the temperatures would’ve held enough for them to still be feeding, it was also the run up to a big moon phase and so we headed off full of confidence. That week the temperatures plummeted to -4, we had days of freezing fog and the gloom hung over the valley in that particular region. In hindsight we should have bailed for another venue further south where the weather was better, but even given the cold we did still feel there was the real chance of a big un on the cards. We did get to photograph a really nice one for our mate Chris on our first day, and Marcus nicked a 41lb common within two hours of getting the rods in, but after that, it was all downhill; 6 days and nights, in cold, grim conditions with hardly a bleep, other than from bream or the hordes of relentless pike anglers out each day deep water jigging..
Sitting there, struggling desperately against the hordes of predator anglers out in flotillas of boats each day, we still had it in our heads that the barrage end was the place to be, even though shows and signs from carp were virtually non-existent. We put it down to the conditions, but in hindsight, it was obvious… the bulk of the stock had finally had enough of the autumn of pressure down that end and had moved up the lake. Two nice Dutch guys who we made friends with dropped in to see us near the end of our trip, they had started at the barrage opposite us, but realising it wasn’t happening, had quickly moved up towards the centre of the reservoir after just two days. With 4, 5 and 6 fish a night up to almost 60lb between them, it was obvious we had made the fatal error, of sitting it out in hope, instead of using our intuition that something wasn’t right any more, and that they had moved. It was a really bitter pill to swallow on the last morning, packing up in freezing conditions, scraping inches of thick mud from the bottom of the clay caked boats. But the reality was Jonny and his mate had angled really well, much better than us in hindsight, and I knew we wouldn’t be so quick to make the same mistake again of sitting it out and waiting.
Sadly I knew that would be the last trip for a while for me as I was due to have surgery on an old injury on my knee, sadly damaged again after 19 years by Lewis Read chasing me around the exhibition hall in Zwolle last February. Almost two decades of years of riding and racing bikes, surfing and skating, and I damage it again getting chased by Lewis Read, of all things…?! The operation was straight forward, ligament and graft damage repaired by keyhole, but it meant I would be off my feet and sofa bound for a good while, and any big water angling and hiking through ankle deep mud certainly wouldn’t be a good idea for a good few months. After a hard years angling and filming, I had a stack of work to catch up on so having a knee like a balloon that I couldn’t bend gave me a good excuse to lock myself to my Mac for a few weeks and catch up on everything. I did manage to sneak out for a handful of days fishing on the beautiful River Test once I could walk again, and spent as many days as I could fit in float fishing for Roach, Grayling and Dace. Small stick floats, size 22 hooks and single maggot hookbaits felt impossibly delicate after an autumn spent dropping 10oz leads and 22mm hookbaits from a boat. I’ve always believed that diversity in angling, and putting yourself in lots of different situations is really valuable as an angler though, and not only that, I thoroughly enjoyed it and for a while became completely captivated by the ‘quest for a two’. 1.15 was my weighed best, with a good number of others in the 1.08 sort of range, and I also mistakenly returned a much bigger one, definitely 2lb plus, one day that I mistook for a hybrid. Checking the photos later I quickly realised my fatal error! There’s always next year eh!
By the time February arrived, I had well and truly had enough of being stuck behind my Mac and was getting itchy feet. My knee had returned to a normal size and was no longer a fat bag of pain, so the prospect of some big water angling was back on the table. I turned forty this year, a big milestone birthday but to be honest, I’m not much of a party guy, and the prospect of a mental breakdown at the horror of being 40 years old felt very real, so I decided to load the van, grab Sarah my wife, some rods, the boat and a few big bags of boilie and head down to the south of France to escape it all.
After the usual big 12-14hr drive we arrived late, crashed out for the night and started afresh in the morning. We woke to snow-capped mountains and the most beautiful of dawns. I’d promised Sarah it would be worth the journey for the scenery alone, so neither of us were disappointed. We spent the day hiking around the area, and I spent some time in the boat that afternoon looking for spots and some carp. With no shows, and no reflections whatsoever on the echo I opted for a central area that let me cover lots of water, and some really nice looking features – a deeper silty gully, and some interesting looking gravel features on what I had worked out was the edge of the old river bed, before the lakes were barraged. After a chilled day getting rods sorted, and cooking some nice food I dropped all three rigs sweetly on the markers that evening, with just a scattering of crumb, corn and a few whole baits dotted here and there. The water was still cold, and with ice melt run off flowing in from a number of sources I knew I was up against it. Three big liners the first night kept me keen though, and I planned to return to the same area after packing up first thing and heading off to the city for the day with Sarah. After a day exploring the cities galleries and museums and cafes, we headed back to the reserve and I repeated the mission of building the boat, finding the spots again and getting four rods out. Second night was quiet, we had another day out and about and I fished a different area for the third night, vowing to head off elsewhere if I saw no signs that night. Fishing a big snag, some other really good looking structure and another nice silty gully with not a bleep, we headed off again, spending another day in the city and then heading off south to warmer climes that evening, making another gruelling 6 hour drive west to the Lot valley for the last few nights. The mornings in the mountains were beautiful, like no others, cold and crystalline light, the luminous snow capped mountains framing the view front and back. I would have dearly loved a shot of a big, black old mirror with that as a backdrop, but it wasn’t to be, and we were just a bit early in hindsight.
I knew a nice spot on a barraged section of the Lot that would suit the trip – fishing from the van meant we were limited to ‘drive-in’ options too, but it wasn’t just a fishing trip, so although I did want the chance of a bite, I didn’t care too much. Arriving near midnight after a big drive, the main area I wanted to fish was already taken, gutted… so was the second! The plan was dissolving in front of me. Thankfully the other area I fancied was free, so we parked the van and assessed the situation. It looked good, made for a perfect camp for a few nights, was surrounded by plenty of driftwood for fires and so we settled in. The first night was deathly quiet, but the barrage is capped by a huge hydro electric dam, and is always liable to sudden level changes, either up or down, and that first night the water dropped almost 2 metres, and had I set up in the first choice area my rigs would’ve been sat a clear 3 foot out of the water on dry land that first morning, with more chance of a bite from a seagull or maybe a rabbit than a carp! As it happens, our choice of area was actually perfect, and as I’d seen happen before, as the levels dropped, the carp pushed round into the deeper water, and in front of me. Two bites the second night brought a small common, and the loss of a much bigger feeling fish. But it didn’t matter, we had a big fire, celebrated my birthday, cooked some lovely fresh food, drunk some spirits and stared up at the huge starry sky for hours as the embers spiralled up and away into the darkness.
Even though it wasn’t a ‘proper’ fishing trip, it was still a hell of a long drive for a fifteen pound common, so I was still holding out for a last ditch good un. As I got the rods sorted for the last night some last minute predator anglers were still jigging in the area of my long rod. I headed out in the boat, and in my best French asked if it was ok to drop a rig out there and to ask them to try and avoid the line if they could – it was a risky exercise, the predator anglers have an especially poor relationship with the carp anglers, and being English I didn’t expect that to help much, but I think my efforts with the language were appreciated and so they were friendly, and after a quick chat where I tried to feign some interest in the Pike and Zander, out it went, with a solid firm drop onto a ridge of hard sand and fine gravel in 8M of water, surrounded by 10-12M and silt. Deeper than I wanted, but I knew it was a good area. When the bite came that night, I was straight in the boat this time and getting towed around by what was clearly not a fifteen pounder. Thankfully it avoided the huge submerged tree this time, and as the flank of a big common surfaced, coughing water, I have never been quite so glad to scoop the net under a fish. It just scraped over 40lb, and on my 40th birthday, it made the perfect fairy tale ending. Sarah did the shots for me at first light, just before we headed off on the 14 hour drive north. It was a cool character, a lovely chestnut colour and without a hookmark in its mouth, but with a blind eye, melted tail and a few displaced scales, like all the river carp, it did show signs of living a hard life.
I caught no giants, and no massive numbers of fish, but it was a big adventure all the same, and with Sarah too – her first French public water experience.”