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26 Oct 2015
by Simon Blanford and Andy Bell
Carp Letter from America - September
Our bloggers in America, Simon Blanford and Andy Bell, tell us what they got up to in September...

Last month’s carping proved to be a bit bitty. We tested a couple of new lakes here, had an overnighter there, but in the end it can’t be said that we got to grips with any particular water. This is the nature of having more places to fish than you can successfully grasp and as a result you get to know a little about some, but know none in depth.

A Great Blue Heron on its unusual perch

Our approach hasn’t been that of gormless spectators (not quite anyway) accepting whatever any water has to offer to our unvarying approach. Through the summer we’ve made changes to our tactics. We’ve mucked around with our base ground-bait mix. We’ve tried different hookbaits alongside our standard out-of-the-can sweetcorn. And we have gradually adopted rigs that look a little more like those experienced carp fishers might use. Still, as we’ve dipped our toes in many of the rivers and lakes in our vicinity rather than spending time concentrating on a particular water, it is difficult to say whether these adjustments have had any real effect. So as the season draws to a close we have begun to wonder what we might need to do to realise the potential we see in some of these waters.

Time on the water is of course crucial but so is a dedicated campaign focusing on one place. In fact, focusing on one particular area of one particular water is where it’s at because, as we noted in last month’s article, no one season campaign is likely to get to grips with all of a 1,600 acre lake. This is particularly the case for fish whose heads have rarely been turned by bait. Their time has been spent digging up clams, crushing snails, chasing crayfish and filtering blood worms, lives not spent testing boilies or grubbing amongst beds of particle. These carp may be suspicious of bait initially but, never ones to pass up regular free meals, they should respond if our efforts were concentrated on one swim.

So Simon, with a more flexible life than Andy, decided to test this well-worn carping tactic. The initial results were encouraging. Off the back of a week’s baiting the first short dip of hooked baits produced three fish to a shade under twenty pounds in just a couple of hours. With the bait still going in two more sessions pulled out four more fish. Perhaps the baiting campaign was having an effect. But just as things were shaping up it came to light that Simon had managed to chose the only spot on the whole lake that didn’t have cell phone coverage. Since he had the family’s only car and was therefore first responder to any whim, mishap or emergency by other family members, being out of phone contact, even for a few hours, was frowned on. So Simon moved to a different swim and began again. This too started to produce results but of different proportions. The first two fish were both fine twenties, the second a golden and very solid twenty-six.

An immaculate fish from the start of the (reset) pre-baiting campaign.

Then came a string of fish all less than ten pounds before two more twenties popped up as if they were child-minding their younger charges. One of these larger fish was a rare mirror.

All this effort on one accessible spot brought attention from various other fishers, dog walkers and assorted passers-by. One husband and wife team steered their boat up to the shore for a chat while he was playing the mirror. Pleasant enough. Except that Simon had to point out that he did have a fish on and their boat was on top of it. After the fish was landed and out of curiosity at how accurate their estimate might be, Simon asked them to guess the weight of the fish. “Twenty-eight, maybe thirty pounds,” was the response. The mirror actually weighed twenty-one and looked less confirming that most of our local informants, used to seeing fish of only a couple of pounds at the most, likely grossly overestimate the weight of the carp they actually do see.

A rare mirror.

It’s always hard maintaining a campaign like this. Travel time, cost of the bait and petrol, even the time spent actually fishing, enjoyable though it may be. With this in mind Simon determined to have one more fling at the end of the month.

It was a marvellous, hectic day. Tactics ran the range of bottom baits and pop-ups; Spam (lovely spam, wonderful spam) and corn (long strings of the golden grain on the hair, or just one or two kernels, or even grains skewered directly onto the hook); bolt rigs and running rigs. All variations on the theme caught fish and by the end, the session had produced five twenties in an eleven fish haul including fat carp of twenty-five, twenty-six and twenty-seven pounds.

A sequence of large carp provided a …

… fitting end to our season on The Lake.

An excellent end to a good season on The Lake. Of course the question hanging over this effort is, did the pre-baiting work? It’d be nice to think it did if only to justify the effort. But to assume so would be to fall into the easy trap of confusing correlation with causation – the “abiding error of humanity” as Michael Bywater once wrote and an error to which carp anglers are particularly prone. Ascribing the appearance of a carp at the end of your line to the adjustment you just made to a rig, the bait or a change of swim is always tempting – careers are made on it – but hardly conclusive in the face of all those other variables that may have been equally responsible. Perhaps a hungry fish just happened to come along at that time and was going to eat whatever bait was available irrespective of the rig it was presented on. So, on The Lake, the honest answer to whether all the baiting worked is – dunno. It’s equally possible that these carp didn’t need a careful baiting campaign; they were already there when Simon turned up to try and catch them.

And then these fish aren’t really like those stocked into many UK waters. Released from the domestication process over a hundred years ago they have been since left largely untouched. Untouched by us that is, not untouched by everything else for from the moment they are spawned they are bombarded by disease, parasites and particularly predators as well as having to learn to find and deal with an array of food items.

In comparison many of the UK strains, the Leneys, Suttons, Dinks and the like have become more and more domesticated. The process radically changes animals from their ancestral form (wolves and dogs being the obvious example) and it has for carp too. You only have to read the excellent series, “The Diary of a Carp Farmer” by Simon Scott that’s been running in CARPology magazine, to get an idea of how UK farmed fish are reared and of the halcyon early life they lead. Scott and his team at VS Fisheries seek to eliminate the dangers carp face in natural environments: almost no diseases, no predators, and food – the same food for all – on tap. What decides which carp goes on to the next year, the next pond and eventually to your lakes is not predation by pike or osprey or the struggle to find food. It’s the god-like hand of the fish farmer, or the fishery manager come to take his pick and pointing at “that one”.

The different origins and early life experience of farm-reared and wild fish can lead to tangible differences between the two. Size and shape variation is obvious with our fish being more streamlined and more often fully scaled than the rotund, high-backed and deep-bellied fish prevalent in UK waters. And there are differences in less visible traits too. For example, differences in their intelligence, their learning ability, memory retention, personality, neophobia and musical appreciation. These can vary markedly between fish with different histories and rearing regimes. Of course, all these fish are naïve when they first encounter a bait whether they are wild or farmed. But which way these factors go subsequently, whether wild or domestic lines learn faster, have better memories, have more varied personalities or prefer Beethoven to Beyoncé are perennially interesting questions. Perhaps surprisingly, biologists who study behavior and evolution have actually looked into these subjects (the dumbing-down caused by domestication being a favourite topic) and have some interesting answers. Unfortunately to detail what they’ve found is an article series in its own right and way too much to get into here. So we’ll have to leave you to speculate about the findings, speculation being one of the other favourite pastimes of carp anglers.

Luckily, and whatever the indications from biologists, we can assume that our fish are still naïve. We’ve only scraped the surface of what is to be caught here and with that in mind Andy, ever accommodating, informed Mrs Andy that a few days relaxing by the water would be just what her visiting Scottish friend needed to unwind at the end of the month. After all, the forecast was for unseasonably warm weather and, he hastened to add, the cabin on The Other Lake, where we’d had a number of fish previously, would provide a comfy retreat regardless. They’d even take wine.

Thus, three nights at The Other Lake were booked. The Neighbour, who first appeared in the July ‘Letter’, would join them on the first night. On the last day - having given Andy plenty of time to get the swims fizzing – Simon would turn up hoping to reap the rewards of Andy’s hard work.

On arrival two things became apparent. First, the water level was down a good two feet; second, this had not aided the weed situation with a great mat of loose ribbons now tangled amidst the fronting lily pads.

The lucky dip of netting fish in the heavy weed.

Fortunately, for wader-less wading, the water temperature was at least tolerable, if not exactly inviting.

Andy does his Putin imitation.

A wood-pile assembled, the hammocks up and Mrs Andy and Mrs Andy’s Scottish Friend installed, each armed with a chilled sauvignon, Andy donned his swimmers and set about clearing some channels, a task that resulted in great bankside mounds of vegetation. The kayak was employed to confirm depths, place a marker float (that doubled as a warning for bass boats to steer clear) and to liberally bait-up the chosen swims. Once again the initial approach was to be Andy's default of a seed/corn bed over which several kernels of corn sat popped-up, buoyancy provided by alternating slithers of yellow foam, with the just anchored hook stooping at a menacing angle.

The first rod was cast and before Andy could refill Mrs Andy’s and Mrs Andy’s Scottish etc. empty glasses, much less consider a hoppy one for himself, it was away.

First cast, first twenty.

Helpfully the fish panned to the left, to open water, its first run typifying the heavy, dogged attitude of The Other Lake's fish. Mrs Andy dutifully followed her husband into the water, assembling the net as she progressed ("it's because of bloody Simon that this bastard isn't up yet, isn't it?") and shortly thereafter emerged with a chunky twenty-four pounder. This was one o’clock in the afternoon. An unheard of capture as the last visit had produced almost nothing through the middle of the day. This time though, the carp continued to buck the trend. By the time The Neighbour arrived that evening another three big doubles had been netted. The Neighbour, we should remind you, is an American. A good version of the kind it has to be said but one nevertheless afflicted with the desire for vertically challenged rods. He produced an array of 4ft toothpicks, which he seriously considered using. Fortunately for Andy he came bearing other gifts, a case and a half of serious IPA. Andy greeted him warmly.

Don’t panic … he’s American. The Neighbour doing something with a fish.

Dusk descended. Mrs Andy and Mrs Andy’s etc. etc. demanded himself and The Neighbour come and eat and as if this was a signal a buzzer screeched. Mid-play Andy had a snap-off: not the line, the rod. It had seen the dark side of a moving 4x4’s tyres a while back and apart from the rings being a bit mangled no other damage had previously been apparent. Not correct. Andy, picking out carbon shrapnel from his chest hairs, found that hand-lining a sixteen pounder was interesting, and painful, and not to be recommended.

By the time Mrs Andy and Mrs etc. etc. etc. had retired and the fire had ebbed low another seven fish including a twenty for The Neighbour (not on one of his rods, thankfully) had graced the bank. The Neighbour and Andy continued to chat and booze through the night interrupted at regular intervals by a further four portly carp and two of the wrong sort of fish (see August). The Neighbour departed early the next morning for somewhere more civilized. Andy promptly retired to bed.

He didn’t emerge until three the following afternoon but with the heady aroma of a full English egging him on got his rigs back in and fishing in a short space of time. Once again, as if the fish had been waiting, he had an instant run, a slogging battle and was eventually joined by a majestic slab. At just over thirty-one pounds his best of the season.

Andy crowns his season with a stunning thirty.

A few hours later Mrs Andy had to land Mrs etc. etc. etc. who had toppled in off the jetty and was thought, at one point, to have embedded herself in the silt. Mrs Andy responded immediately and Andy was close on her tail, "a silt bed, you say. Does she have bloodworm in her hair?"

The other catching continued and after another eight fish including a twenty by twilight Andy was persuaded to be sociable, reeled in and set about losing his clothes to the women folk at cards.

Waking with a jolt the next morning Andy was quick to the dewy bank. The sun was still climbing through the mustard coloured trees and the mist steamed low on the lake's granite surface. The odd string of bubbles percolated up from behind the pads. It was an idyllic start to the day.

The drizzle brought a twenty-seven.

Simon was due to arrive around lunchtime and Andy was keen to further fill his boots before having to play nicely. Although there were signs of fish in the vicinity they stubbornly refused to get their heads down. Several pounds of seed/corn mix were introduced as the sky clouded and what was to become a persistent drizzle fell. The mildly inclement weather was forgiven because the feeding switch had been flipped. A dark, deep, twenty-seven pounder was followed by two smaller brethren and then, as Simon's car drew up, another twenty lay glinting on the unhooking mat.

Simon approached cradling a new stock of beer. Andy greeted him warmly. "Been catching?" inquired Simon. "I think you're going to have fun," replied Andy.

And the catching continued at a ridiculous rate. Sixteen more fish came to the bank with a further three twenties topped by a twenty-five Simon snaffled on a float leger – a tactic used in an attempt to defy the weed. Darkness fell and an exhausted Andy toddled off to bed. Simon stayed up but needn’t have bothered. A cooler night saw nothing happening until four in the morning when two doubles came his way. By six Andy was up again and continued where he left off picking up a further four fish including yet another twenty.

Jack Hilton lives.

Simon, to his great annoyance given the number of fish feeding, had a series of runs all of which popped the hook after brief pressure. Still this was a vanishingly minor blip at the end of an otherwise incredible session.

Fifty-one fish had been landed of which well over half were better than fifteen pounds, ten were over twenty pounds and all were topped by Andy’s type specimen of a common carp at thirty-one pounds. We knew that carping in the States could be prolific but this was something special. How would October compare? Find out in next month’s “Carp Letter from America".

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