Paul Codman looks at the reality of cold-water carping.
Freezing temperatures, mud, short days and long nights, and of course only the remotest chance of actually seeing a fish on the bank. Let’s not romanticise, shall we? Winter fishing is hard, really hard. If you’re embarking on a winter session or a campaign, you are up against it. Physically and mentally, winter carping will punish you in every possible way.
Every year when the winter sets in we start to see those familiar tips popping up: high attractant singles, zigs, move on to showing fish, watch the water for any signs of fish no matter how small, fish on the back of a cold wind, be comfortable and dress for winter – all fantastic advice. So, let’s assume we’ve done all this a dozen times over already, but what do you do when you follow it all and still you can’t get a result?
Last winter I fished two of Wasing’s waters, not as well known as the famous Cranwells, but both containing some lovely fish. I started off on the smaller of the two at six acres and I chose to fish an area that gave me a really good view of the lake. It was very exposed to the elements, but I felt it was worth it for the view of the lake I was getting. However, I can now tell you that I spent nearly two months getting battered by the wind and rain in that swim, and it wasn’t worth the trade off. I’m not saying I was the Revenant, but I suffered in that swim! Through October, November and most of December the temperature wasn’t too bad, so I kept opting to use my shelter rather than a full on bivvy. In theory it sounds great, but in reality I spent most nights trying to hold the thing down. If you’ve never attempted to rotate your shelter in the dark, while it’s tipping down and the rain lashes your face and soaks all your gear as you do so… well, you have never lived!
I was using Dynamite Baits Monster Tiger Nut and Red-Amo in 15mm, both of which had worked well for me in the previous winter. I kept the rods on the baited spot, but if I saw anything of interest I would move a rod to investigate. I also tried experimenting with zigs at various depths, but again with no results. Frustration was setting in, and the wind and rain hardly let up for a second. On some of the calmer nights I was treated to some incredible sunsets, reminding me how good it feels to be lakeside even during the bleakest times of the year.
As December drew on and Christmas was fast approaching, the forces at work decided to make things even more difficult for me: the temperature plummeted. With no action forthcoming and temperatures dropping down to single digits and then into the minus figures, I decided to move on to the larger but shallower lake. A change is as good as a rest, as they say, and I had caught fish (including a lovely dark thirty) from this particular lake in the depths of winter before, so I had a bit of a confidence boost straight away.
I decided to forget about zigs and implement one of my greatest techniques: stubbornness. I was going to stick to a simple pop-up rig with a size 4 hook and a 4oz lead, a setup I’m comfortable with and I know works. Okay, maybe I did top off the pop-ups with a high-vis Crave boilie, so I wasn’t completely avoiding all the clichés, but you know what they say: never say never and never say always. I think that’s two clichés in one sentence – no more, I promise!
The lake was so quiet (only the truly obsessed venture out at this time of year), so I was able to bait a central area of the lake to try and get a bit of feeding going on. I kept the routine up and just fished as often as I could, maximising the chance that when they did feed – which they just had to do at some point – I would be there!
Things hit rock bottom one night when the temperature hit -3°C and the lake froze overnight – as did the zip on my bivvy, which was amusing to the bailiff when I had to steam my way free! The ice was quite thin so I made the (genius) decision to leave the rods in situ and carry on – stubbornness. The second night it dropped to -6°C and the ice thickened by about an inch. I had to concede and leave the lake until it became fishable again. As I used a tree branch to break the ice around the lines so I could retrieve the rigs, I really felt like I was beating my head against a brick wall – or an inch-thick sheet of ice!
It was horrible to halt the plan, but it didn’t take too long for the ice to melt and I was straight back over there. It was one morning in late January when, as I sat preparing to begin the packing up process, the right-hand rod pulled up! There was a lot of bird life on the lake, so I didn’t get too excited straight away, but as I picked up the rod the unbelievable became real: it was a fish. A shocked little mirror made its way to the bottom of the net and it was a real beauty. I had to leave the lake that morning, but I managed to get over to drop some bait in before the next session. I was desperate to get back down and could think of nothing else.
When I eventually dropped in on the Sunday night I was practically bouncing up and down and I could hardly sleep. I awoke to a beep at 4am and lifted into what was clearly a decent fish. I eased the weight towards the bank and saw a large pale shape in the moonlight. A gorgeous common well over 20lb rolled into the net – yes! I secured him in the sling for early morning photos and repositioned the rod. He went 27¾lb on the scales, and I was making my traditional celebratory mocha in the morning when the middle rod pulled up tight. What felt like a small fish made its way towards me before waking up and giving me a real runaround. I wasn’t expecting to see such a lump, but when I laid her out on the mat she suddenly looked huge. The scales confirmed it: 30½lb! A winter thirty – what an incredible result. I thought it was all over, but at 11am the right-hand rod came to life and another mirror made its way to the bank. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had such an incredible run.
The next night resulted in two tench (madness in the depths of winter), one of which took out the other two rods, resulting in me having to redo them all in the dark and cold – great fun on a winter’s night. The next session a few days later saw me arriving in the dark and getting the rods in position by moonlight before retiring to bed. The morning came and went and it wasn’t until 1pm when the right-hand rod pulled up and I lifted into another dead weight. I was fishing at a considerable distance, so the XT-A Long Casts came into their own and did a sterling job in assisting me coax the fish towards the bank. It was another beast and spun the needle over the magical 30lb mark to settle on 33½lb – another fantastic fish.
It was a long, hard winter and the blanks far outweighed the results, but if someone had told me that’s what I’d have to do to see two thirties and those other fish on the bank then I would have bitten their hand off! When I look back now I don’t think about the blanks: I think about being out there in such challenging conditions, having the lake almost exclusively to myself, and seeing those fish on the bank and how it made everything so worthwhile.
And that, really is the ugly truth about winter fishing. There are no magic bullets! Winter fishing isn’t about cracking the code or seeing the Matrix. It’s not about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about weathering the storm and learning to dance in the rain. Blanking in summer is easy – anyone can do that. But blanking in the winter… now that takes real dedication! So, to anyone out there facing the elements, congratulate yourself because you’re doing it! The good times are coming and you’re already halfway there, you just don’t know it yet.
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