With a little help from my friends…
“Even the best laid plans turn to hell when exposed to reality”
Part one of this short series ended with me driving back home from a challenging trip to a large French public water the previous September. I was already plotting a return to France, this time to another reservoir I had been told about by a friend. Months of mostly fruitless research followed over the winter. Aside from finding some incredible drone shots of the lake when it was last partially drained, which showed some blatant and enormous carp holes, information had been incredibly hard to come by.
The reservoir is strictly days only, probably around 350 acres in size and had a well-appointed campsite a short walk from the banks. Some footage I found on YouTube from someone’s holiday there the previous year clearly showed two bivvys pitched at the site. Given it was the only campsite for miles I took this as a positive that the lake was not heavily fished, assuming any fellow anglers would have booked there for convenience. Knowing for certain the record of the other reservoirs in the chain for producing big fish I had convinced myself I had found a lightly fished monster mecca. Whilst the days only fishing was going to be physically hard graft, I have always believed you get out what you put in and I was more than prepared to do whatever I had to in order to make the acquaintance of some of the reservoir’s residents.
As ever with me, things usually don’t go to plan. I have previously described myself as being something of a shit magnet, it’s rarely a matter of ‘if’ something will go wrong but more a matter of ‘what’ and ‘how badly’. Two weeks before I was due to leave, I was visiting my family and got struck down by a particularly savage virus of dubious origins. Despite many negative Covid tests, I had most of the symptoms and was physically struggling to stand up after a few days. Instead of returning home on the Sunday morning I eventually arrived home, still feeling both incredibly weak and intensely tired on the Thursday night. This was exactly a week before my crossing was booked and I was still unsure if I was going to go. Eventually after a long weekend I made the call Monday afternoon that I should be good to go. If only I knew then what I was letting myself in for …
I was convinced by the time I left that I was ruthlessly organised. I had requested a pitch as close as possible to the quickest route from the campsite to the reservoir banks and paid the deposit a few months before my trip was due. I had already scoped out areas to hide the inflatable overnight on Google Earth and instead of taking the usual 4 rods and the ‘real’ big water kit, I took my three normal rods and reels in case it was going to be a matter of casting to fish and more like typical spring fishing in the UK. Instead of my usual gobstoppers I was taking a large supply of 18mm Sea Monsta, a lot of 4oz leads and even had the throwing stick packed. I was ready to be super mobile and move at the drop of a hat to get on fish
Thankfully, as I was entirely unsure what style of angling I was going to find myself doing, I also packed a contingency plan of a small bucket of big leads and another one with my H Blocks and bottle markers in. I thought they would spend the week in the car, unused and gathering dust. This turned out to be a very wise decision.
The journey down went without hassle, and I aimed to arrive before check in time at the campsite. I made really good time and after a few comfort and one coffee and petrol break I eventually emerged from a long single winding track to be confronted by the expanse of the reservoir. From my initial vantage point at the northern end, around a mile from the campsite it’s azure waters glistened enticingly in the distance, I always find big lakes look a lot more daunting and bigger than you expect when you first see them. Despite measuring everything already on Google Earth the open sheet of water looked a lot bigger than the mile that I looked down it’s length. Following the sat nav, I headed to the campsite and made my way to reception to enquire about an early check in.
Reception was closed for lunch but one of the site managers saw me peering through the window and despite being on a break came to welcome me to the site. For those who have never experienced this kind of campsite before they really are top notch compared to a lot of what we have in the UK, it had two restaurants, a bar, open air and indoor pools, a gym and large communal showers and was a perfect base for what was likely to be a hard weeks fishing. I was told which pitch I had been given and told to come and check in once reception was back open in around an hour, but was welcome to go to my pitch immediately. It was perfect. I had literally been given the last pitch by the pedestrian gate that exited to the banks of the reservoir some thirty yards away and a large reedbed ideal for stashing an inflatable in was immediately in front of me. Things were looking good and I decided to leave the car at the pitch and go for a walk round the reservoir. I grabbed a cap, some binos, a bottle of water and set off enthusiastically for the waters edge.
Upon reaching it I was a little nonplussed to see a bivvy set up a few hundred yards to my left, I scanned the banks through the binos and around a hundred yards further round the bank again was another one. Slightly perturbed I rounded a point to see some marquees being erected and another two bivvys set up a few hundred yards to the right. This did NOT feel good. I wandered over to one of the marquees and could see some stakes with what I assumed were peg numbers on being hammered into the ground. This was NOT good and I went to enquire in the marquees as to what was occurring. To my surprise and more than a little shock I was informed the entire reservoir was closed to outside anglers for the next 96 hours for an enduro starting the following day. What do you say to that? Months of meticulous planning, almost 500 miles of driving and getting a large square kick in the nuts right at minute one of the trip. All the places were booked so I could not enter which was just as well when I later discovered the entrance fee was over €500 so I quietly skulked back to the campsite to ponder my options, staying was not one of them – I did mention I was a bit of a shit magnet! I made my way to reception to regale the manager with my tale of woe, he was furious they had not been told about the enduro as had no idea. I informed him I was going to have to leave and after me refusing them wanting to refund my deposit (as it was not their fault) I was presented with a bottle of red by way of apology and gesture of goodwill which I later found out would have cost more than the deposit. With this stashed in the footwell I ran through my options and quickly decided I would head back to Septembers area but to a different lake. I had some options down south but a friend of a friend had been down there for a week already and it had been tough going, the deeper lakes there taking a lot longer to warm up than those in the Centre and East. I pointed the carp bus North and set off on the two-hour drive to venue number two.
A long day dreaming of sights like these
It was getting on for 17.00 by the time I arrived, after stopping en route for some additional supplies like water that I was not thinking I would need and parked in the same walkers car park in the forest I had visited some months before. The lake looked a complete contrast to what I had seen in September. The water was now ridiculously high and most of the banks had semi submerged trees poking their tops out of the margins all the way around. I walked the length of the night zone and found two Dutch lads who were the only people fishing and who I must say did not seem particularly pleased to see me (which is in total contrast to any of the other Dutch lads I have met in France BTW). I sat on a picnic bench overlooking one of the arms and drank some rather disgusting cold coffee from a flask and surveyed the scene, the weather forecast was not good with strong North Easterly winds due for several days and the night-time temperatures looked alarmingly low for the time of year. I was not feeling particularly enthusiastic after an arduous and disappointing day so planned to sleep by the car and get up at first light and try and find some carp. Just as I was popping the flask back in my bag the unthinkable happened and much to my entire disbelief, I saw a carp show. It was small, probably an upper double but it was definitely a carp. Well that was it… all thoughts of tiredness and sleeping by the car disappeared… I spent the next two hours lugging all the gear a few hundred yards from the car to the waters edge and claimed the first ‘swim’ (if you could call it that) in the night zone. It consisted of a vaguely flat piece of bank, by which I mean it had an incline of about 20 degrees which was mild compared to the immediate surrounds and the tops of the trees emerging from the margins allowed enough room to get a boat in and out between them and some rods so it was good enough for me. It was pitch black and had been dark way over an hour by the time I had camp established. I got everything ready for an early start before collapsing, totally exhausted onto the Levelite and soon drifted into a deep sleep.
The clear skies belied the bitter temperatures in a biting north easterly wind
The alarm was set for 5am which was well before first light. It came round in no time and I was soon peering out of the sleeping bag into what was a cold, still, frosty morning, I did not want to rush anything so made breakfast and ate that whilst watching the world around me come to life. It was not long before the rays of the early morning sun had crept over the adjacent hills and their welcoming warmth soon melted the surrounding frost and the ground and my equipment were literally steaming. I sat watching the water all morning like a hawk and aside from two tench that rolled I saw no signs of carp whatsoever. Undeterred and buoyed by the sighting the previous evening I set about getting the rods out. Now I had mentioned the water level was up but I had not appreciated just how much, I made my way to my left which was the area I had seen the fish show in. I was sure it may even have been dry land when I was there some months previously and it was around 28 feet deep. The tops of the trees in the margins were in water over ten feet deep and the margins in front of me and to my right sloped down into 42 feet of water. Not ideal for the time of year but I had seen one so felt confident something could happen.
The left-hand rod in the area of the show had an old stream bed running through it which was clearly noticeable on the echo. This was dropped on a nice firm area the near side of the stream bed. The middle rod was taken across to the far margin and fished along a weedy drop off in 18 feet and the right-hand rod was fished at the bottom of my marginal slope in around 24 feet of water before the lake bed gently dropped into the abyss.
All of them featured identical set ups from the new Cygnet Terminal Range. Braided mainline was tied to a 40 foot length of 50lb Mono Snag Leader, this was then tied to a four foot length of the super heavy 60lb Leadcore with a Lead Clip at the end upon which was adorned with a 6 or 8oz Cygnet Gripper Lead. The rigs themselves were tied from 35lb Semi Stiff Coated Braid and the business end was a Noodle Rig terminating in a super sharp size 2 Cygnet Wide Gape. Ultimately it was strong, reliable and would stand up to any snags and sub aqua issues I was liable to encounter and had my complete confidence. These were dropped to the lake bed accompanied by a three bait stringer and given a gentle ‘lift and resettle’ after hitting bottom to ensure they were well presented.
Testing new gear in testing conditions
The winds arrived around lunchtime, unfortunately the forecast for once was incredibly accurate and they were strong, bitterly cold, and to add insult to injury, blowing right in my face.
I spent the next three days and nights fruitlessly scanning the area for carp and covering a variety of depths and spots and aside from the odd liner from striking pike and rolling tench the bobbins remained inactive and the alarms mostly silent.
The Dutch lads had packed up and left two days before they were due to leave which was not a good omen and each morning was getting colder than the last. After a third blank night without a sighting of a carp in days I knew I had to something. At one point I even contemplated pulling the trip and heading home, I wasn’t feeling 100% still and after three nights sleeping awkwardly on a slope was craving a good nights sleep. The morning was that cold I had braid frozen to the reels, the landing net was frozen to the boat and the daytime temperatures were not forecast to get above 12 degrees for the coming days. The forecast looked miserable, I was feeling miserable and knew I needed to do something drastic to try and salvage the trip.
Braid frozen solid to the reels
I waited until the frost had melted, packed the mostly dry gear down and lugged it all back to the car. Just as I closed the boot, an aged Renault van came bouncing down the track and a rather dishevelled and clearly agitated carpiste emerged from the drivers door.
Now my vague ‘plan’ had been to drive round the other lakes in the area and try and find a likely spot in one of the night zones to settle, however…
He enquired as to my fortunes and upon telling him of my “Nil carpes” he literally exploded into a quite entertaining rant. It turned out he had spent the last eight hours driving round the lakes I planned to visit and informed me whilst shouting loudly and gesticulating wildly that “Lake A, too many carpistes and nil carpes, Lake B, too many carpistes and nil carpes, Lake C, too many carpistes and nil carpes, now here….nil carpistes but also nil carpes.” With that he quite theatrically spun on his heels, got back in his van, slammed the door so loudly it made me jump and disappeared back down the track as quickly as he had arrived, leaving me rather bemused and now wondering what the hell I was going to do. On the plus side this encounter had saved me a days worth of looking however I was now out of ideas and was not too proud to admit I needed some help.
Now one of the good things about fishing these sort of lakes is you do get to meet and talk to some very helpful people and I dispatched an SOS to two people I knew who may be able to point me somewhere worthwhile and hoped for some good news. Wonderful people that they are, both replied in less than fifteen minutes with some recommendations. One was sending me north to Ardennes and the other sending me further south than my first destination to a big shallow reservoir. I checked the forecasts for both areas and the reservoir further south looked more favourable was due to get up to 21 degrees that day. It was around 150 miles away, around three hours drive from where I was sat. I checked it out on Google Earth and it looked perfect. Surrounded on all sides by dense forest and a few miles from the nearest village it ticked all the boxes. More importantly I was also reliably informed it held a good head of carp and was even directed towards one area where the better fish should be at that time of year. I looked up the address for a nearby water sports centre, popped it into the satnav and off I set.
Around 15.00 that afternoon I arrived at venue number three. I made my way towards to boat launch down yet another bumpy track (very common these) and eventually the canopy of trees opened into a small parking area near the launch. The lake was breathtaking in every way. Without giving too much away, the lake had a deeper, central bowl at this end where the barrage was and from which a number of shallow arms led off hundreds and hundreds of metres into the distance. The banks were all heavily wooded and the surrounding hills clad in nothing but forest.
I stood in the launch and surveyed my newly found paradise, despite not being in the night zone this was this area I was advised to angle in. As was becoming par the course with this trip however, there was one slight problem and it was about 120 yards in front of me in an inflatable. Someone was dropping some rods I would estimate around 350 yards or so from where he was plotted on the opposite bank. The ‘problem’ turned out to be a super friendly chap from Austria called Andy who had arrived the previous day.
Not to be deterred, I walked down to the night zone and it was completely empty, this was more like it and it was safe to say my enthusiasm had now returned in spades. I unloaded at the launch, once again inflated the boat and set off for the first swim in the night zone. This fished into an area off the main bowl where it led into two of the arms and it looked an ideal interception point for any travelling carp.
I soon had the bivvy up, everything was unceremoniously thrown into it and I was quicky out on the water looking for somewhere to drop the first rod. The lakebed was completely and utterly featureless and it was also, as expected, very shallow. The deepest water I could find anywhere was 11 feet to my right which led towards the barrage and I had a large bay opposite me that split off the main arm I was on which was around 6 to 7 feet at its deepest. After a few hours of donking leads around into mud, mud, muddy mud, some more mud, some soft mud, and then yet more mud, I took the decision to cover some likely looking interception points and spread arcs of bait around them to hopefully intercept any fish moving in or out of the arm. I tied some longer rigs to account for the soft bottom and dropped the rods at dusk. I turned in a few hours later brimming with confidence and eager to see what the night held.
A glorious first sunset at the new lake
I don’t think I had been asleep an hour when the middle rod let out a few bleeps. I assumed it was it a liner and went back to sleep for all of half an hour until the same thing happened again. This repeated itself all night on all three rods and at first light the sight that greeted my bleary eyes was of tench rolling everywhere I looked. I sat scanning the water and eventually saw three definite carp, none of them anywhere near where I was fishing but two of them in areas I could get a rod to so a change around was in order.
After a quiet few hours the odd occurrences started again at lunchtime and I even had a lead dropped on the middle rod. To prove a point to myself I tied up a slip D on a size four Cygnet Curve Shank and dropped it back out. Less than ten minutes later it was away and a rather annoying tench, about 4lbs in weight was unceremoniously winched in from its dining area around 180 yards away. Just to prove it was not a coincidence I dropped it back out and again within a short period of time another tench was wallowing in the margins with a sore lip. Point proved. I surmised that the size two Noodles were too much of a mouthful for them to deal with and in all likelihood I was probably getting cleaned out by old red eye soon after getting the rods out and then fishing singles for most of the night. Not ideal.
Point proved - unfortunately - the tench were proving relentless
That evening saw a change around and I moved two rods to the areas I had seen fish in and persisted with one in the bay opposite for another night. The tench moved in again after dark and it looked like another sleepless night was on the cards, then around 2am the right-hand rod absolutely tore off! The oft muttered words “that’s no tench” were going through my mind as the rod hooped over and something a long way away proceeded to start stripping line off the clutch and kiting a long way to my left. This was more like it. Shortly afterwards and after wiping one of the other rods out I was looking down at my first carp of the week. Three lakes, four nights, around 650 miles driven and I finally had one. It may have been about 18lb but did I care? Not even the slightest and at that moment that was all that mattered! I had one! I got the camera gear out, did some shots and returned the little scamp to its abode, grateful for the visit it had paid me.
Absolute relief - a carp
Nothing else occurred that night or morning and I redid the rods at lunchtime, I took some time to have a good look around the bay opposite and after finding a huge shoal of tench in there spawning, I decided to move the bay rod round to my right and fish them all towards the arm entrance. I placed a literal wall of Sea Monsta out there and anything that moved in or out of the arm had to encounter my bait.
That evening was my penultimate nights fishing and I was sat chatting to a chap called Leon who had arrived that morning when the rod that did the previous nights bite was away. This fish was totally different to the first, it hugged the bottom and plodded purposefully from right to left as it was inched towards me going on several slow but powerful runs. Eventually I was stood up to my thighs in the water, net ready and it still hugging bottom around two rods lengths out when for no apparent reason the hook pulled. We often use adjectives like being wounded or sickened when this occurs but I struggle for words to convey how much that one hurt. I knew it was a much bigger, better fish and was literally the first hookpull I had ever had on those rigs. Upon closer inspection the point was burred right the way over and the gape opened slightly, typical of those unlucky times when hitting some bone prevents a proper hookhold and changes the angle of pull on the point. Maybe I was lucky to have had it on for as long as I did? Leon left me to my pain party to get his rods out for the night and I redid mine, hoping that wasn’t going to be my only chance of the week for proper unit.
In the early hours after another night punctuated by short flurries of bleeps from the tincas the same rod was away again, almost to reinforce what I felt that evening this fight was like the first, a fast-moving carp, kiting all over the place on a long line which took what felt like ages before it was bundled into the net. This was another small one, an angry looking male probably around the same size as the first one and was soon returned to the water.
A small consolation prize
Leon came up the bank for a chat that morning and he had also caught some small carp, having fished the lake before he was a little bemused by the weights of what he had caught and was thinking of leaving. We wondered if the smaller males were making their way into the shallow arms ahead of spawning and if the big girls were hanging back in the main body of water where Andy was fishing.
A few hours later I was back at the car getting some more bait and water and noticed Andy had packed up and was rowing towards the launch. I waited for him to arrive and helped pull him in, he was indeed leaving having caught a number of fish up to 36lb or so with an average weight around the 30 mark. By this point I don’t mind saying I was absolutely mentally and physically exhausted, the miles driven, the sleepless nights, the moving around venues, losing a good fish and with only some tench and a few small carp to show for it I knew I was in the proper last chance saloon. Despite all this and having a rod now doing bites I knew exactly what I needed to do, I put the bait and water back in the car and quickly made my way back to my swim to once more pack the gear up. It was my last day, already lunchtime but I was moving even if it was just for once night as I just knew it was the right thing to do and I knew it would give me a decent chance at a better fish. As I would be fishing practically out of the back of the car, I planned to spend the night under the stars so put most of the gear including the bivvy in the car ahead of the drive home the following day and just left essential bits out for the night ahead.
My confidence levels were soon on the rise having seen half a dozen fish show at range and using the GPS on the echo I fanned the rods out at 160, 140 and 120 from left to right, each with a large scattering of bait round them and started to make my traditional last night meal of a curry. I had just finished chopping some onions when I was treated to something truly spectacular to witness. I had seen several birds of prey in the distance that week and had been wondering what they were but now sat on my bedchair peering through the binos at an osprey that was circling in front of me, probably only about 60 yards or so away. Suddenly it broke from its purposeful languid circle of flight and arrowed towards the lakes surface at incredible speed and skillfully snatched its prey from just below the surface in it’s razor sharp talons before climbing into the air again and flying into the distance with its prize. The encounter was over in seconds yet if I close my eyes now I can still see it in such vivid detail. We can be truly blessed as anglers at times with the places we go and the wildlife we encounter and that was an encounter I am sure I will never forget. As I resumed chopping an onion the irony was not lost on me, two anglers at work for their lunch but only one successful at catching their quarry. I had just been exchanging messages with a mate about what happened, I reread it writing this and it said
“Just sat here watching an osprey hunting mate! That’s what these trips are about as well as the fishing! A genuine privilege to see that!“
Fate was about to reward my efforts and with that the middle rod pulled up slowly and was out of the clip and line being pulled from the tight clutch. From minute one I again knew this was a better fish, I hoped that this time good fortune was going to be on my side. After a bit of drama where it picked the left hand rod up I had to eventually handline the fish into the net and I was greeted by the sight of a wide set of grey shoulders slowly inching towards it as I prayed for the hook to hold. After what felt like an age, a thick set mirror was soon over the net cord and after sliding my hand down the hooklink needn’t have been worried about the hookhold as was an inch or so back in the bottom lip, just as it should be. It was a big fish and looked to be the right side of 35lbs. There was no time to waste so I unhooked it, secured the net safely in the margin, baited another rig, set the echo navigation back to the same spot and pushed off to redrop the rod. I guess I had motored about 30 yards from the bank when the receiver in my pocket went into absolute meltdown…
I find in a situation like this there is little to do other than simultaneously panic and rush! I executed a U turn at full speed and headed for the offending rod as quickly as I could, only pausing to make sure the boat wasn’t about to drift off in the strengthening wind. Line was still being torn from the clutch when I lifted the rod and an epic battle soon started. At one point I was fifty yards down the margin to my right, applying what felt like a ridiculous amount of side strain to try and prevent whatever was on the other end from reaching a fallen tree in the waters edge. It took what felt like an age before I heard the leader knot go through the rings, only to then see it disappear again back into the lake, this must have repeated itself about half a dozen times before an enormous mouth appeared, behind it a long golden flank of bronzed scales, it was a common, and it looked big. You know when you’re juggling a tail into a net when a fish has its head almost on the spreader it’s a good one but it wasn’t until I properly looked at it in the net I realised how big. A totally different build to the mirror, instead of being deep and wide this was long and perfectly proportioned and I remember saying to myself “I don’t want to guess how big that one is”. Again, the hookhold was superb but this time I thought sod the rods, I needed to sort out two big fish before they went back out.
It was a BIG common
I took a breather and made a brew to take in what had just happened and sat there amazed, a stupid grin spreading across my face, I could not believe what had occurred. In the space of two hours what was a gruelling trip with little reward had all come good at the absolute last knockings.
I sorted the all the necessary paraphernalia for some self takes, Leon also having left that day and first bought the mirror ashore. On the scales she went over 37lb and was a proper gnarly looking thing, with sloping shoulders and a big sloping head and behaved perfectly for her shots before being returned.
A big slopey headed grey mirror - that was more like it
Then came the common. I wont repeat what I said when I lifted her onto the mat as am not sure it would get printed but knew she was comfortably over 40lbs. I peeled the mesh back and ran my hands down her flanks, she must have been almost four feet long. After carefully lifting her into the sling the needle settled just past 47lb and I was somewhat shellshocked. I rattled off some shots and a bit of video before carefully holding her in the water to regain her strength and watching as she slowly drifted out of sight.
I don’t think I can adequately describe how I felt at that point. To have that happen right at the death of that trip, it was almost surreal. I debated sharing what happened next but chose to after some reflection, I put the camera gear away, sat on the end of the bedchair with my head in my hands and for a few moments I wept. With relief, with tiredness and then with happiness and disbelief. In todays carp world, a 47lb common may not seem like a big fish or much of a big deal but to me, this is what I dream about. I just want to catch beautiful wild carp from beautiful wild lakes and she was over 47lbs of sublime, wild, public water carp. She was perfect. She was exactly the sort of fish from the sort of lake I dream of… It’s that moment we go for, its’s that moment we drive the miles for, it’s that moment that the months of planning are for, it’s that moment all the hard work, discomfort and sleepless nights are for and it’s that moment we all live for as anglers, to briefly live our dream. For that moment I did.
Perfection to me
I have no idea what time the rods went back out, what time I finally finished cooking and eating or what time I went to sleep. All I know was around midnight another angler arrived sporting the ideal carp anglers name – Beer. Then sometime around 2am I caught a 38lb mirror and shortly after first light I added a mid-20 common to the final night tally that managed to avoid having its picture taken (although Beer captured the moment perfectly). I didn’t put the rods back out after each of those fish. For one I desperately needed some sleep but secondly, I don’t think catching any more fish would have made me any happier. Afterall, that’s what it’s supposed to be about.
The overnight 38lb mirror
After the escape of the common