Gravel pits are, without doubt, my favourite and first choice of venues. Some of my earliest carp fishing took place on the old hand-dug gravel extractions around the Chichester area. My first twenty-pound carp came from a gravel pit and I have always had a real affinity towards these hard-bottomed pits.
Compared to an estate lake, or natural valley scenario, where a river is simply dammed up and the water is held back to form a lake, the gravel pits offer far more variation in topography and hold my interest for much longer. I like to try and work out the routes the carp will use most frequently, the little feeding areas created by the left over gravel seams or returned unusable ‘overburden’ as I believe it is called. Gravel pits come in all sorts of different forms, mainly indicative of the time they were originally dug and the methods that were in place at that time.
I mentioned the hand-dug pits at Chichester; hand-dug pits are generally quite old and tend to be an average of five- or six-feet in depth. There will often be a large shallow area as well, this is where the gravel was removed and washed, the sand deposits washing back into the lake and forming the shallow sand and silt areas where the carp will often visit during hot weather and, very often, these become the main spawning areas. Reedbeds tend to proliferate in these sandy areas and it not uncommon for an established pit to have a large reed choked area at one end.
Irregularities on the bottom such as bars or humps are the areas that were more hassle than they were worth to remove, large tree stumps can often be found, buried in the bottom and almost obscured by the settled deposits that have built up over them due to years of water movement.
Not everything in a gravel pit is of use to the company that is extracting the gravel, particularly the top layer (overburden) so this often gets shifted around the excavation, moved constantly out of the way and, eventually, just left there once the pit is flooded. These may end up as gravel bars or plateaux although, in reality, they are just piles of ‘crap’ left behind and deemed worthless.
As methods improved, or larger workings warranted more extensive and expensive machinery and digging methods, we find the classic ‘drag-lined’ pits.
These are full of parallel bars (not the sort you swing around in a leotard) formed by the movement of the diggers in a straight line along the pit. It was a simple method of swinging a crane bucket out, a bit like a huge swim rake, and then dragging it back towards you, ‘dragging’ all the aggregates into one area. Once again, the ‘crap’ on top would be discarded but, this time, it would be dumped to the side of the line, forming perfectly straight ‘gravel bars’ that often run the length, or breadth, of the pit. Dependent on the height of these bars or the depth of the water that eventually flooded the pit, they may be subsurface or, just as often, chains of islands that are perfect terrain for trees and shrubs.
In more recent times pits are dug with far more sophisticated machinery and in a variety of ways that generally lead to far deeper lakes being formed. Some of these will have levels that are almost like steps leading down the margins, they are, in reality, the roads that ran concentrically around the pit, allowing the deeply excavated aggregate to be brought to the surface.
Finally we have the least interesting type of pit, the ones that have been ‘craned’ out by the modern deep reaching jibs that can easily take sixty-feet of product out of the ground and leave a huge hole in the ground which, once filled with water, makes for an incredibly deep and steep sided lake. Lakes, or pits, can also be added to at a later date using the same or conflicting methods.
Just because the bars run north to south at one end doesn’t mean that they won’t swap and run east to west at the other. If a different method has been used to extend the workings then you may well have one shallower drag lined section joined onto a huge deep bowl.
Obviously this is just a broad stroke of the way the pits came about as different types of aggregate may lay at different depths and this is why clay pits used for brickworks, as one example, are often a lot deeper than gravel pits. Sand pits can also be extremely deep, I suppose the sand is very easy to keep excavating or maybe it just lies in far deeper tracts in the earth.
They are currently excavating a huge pit at the back of my house and, every single time I look, it is a completely different shape. They seem to spend more time moving the unwanted stuff about than they do actually extracting sand. That pit is predicted to have a thirty-year working life!
Why the history lesson?
Understanding how a gravel pit was formed will dramatically improve your angling skills and make light work of identifying the whereabouts of features, the continuity of bars and, hopefully the routes the fish will use when travelling around the pit. Just looking at the margins and the way the depths change will help to show what is going on, old gravel washing plants will be the shallows, identifiable by large reedbeds and sandy slow sloping margins, generally the deeper water will be at the opposite end.
Islands are a key feature on big pits, just one look at the way they point, the spacing’s between them and the general layout will give you an indication of the subsurface bars.
For example, if there is a chain of east/west running islands at 120yds and again at 90yds then there is a massive possibility that a deeper seam of gravel will be located at 60yds, running in the same direction. This can save you so much time when mapping out lakes and searching for shallow areas and feeding spots.
The single main factor for gravel pit success is locating the right kind of spot at the correct time of year, or in the correct conditions. Yes, the wind has a huge influence during the warmer months and gravel pit carp often find it almost irresistible to follow a new wind, but does it actually move the water in the way you imagine? If it blows across the bars rather than along them then the effect may be completely different to the fish. A big westerly, instead of ending up on the east bank, may be channelled around to a different area entirely. Whether the bars en route are shallow or deep will affect the movement of water in different ways.
Some may view all of this as hassle, a headache that you really don’t need when simply fishing for carp, but I find it fascinating, the more I learn about the pit and the subsurface terrain, the easier and more rewarding the fishing becomes.
Some big pits allow the use of boats, I wish they all did to be honest, these make the job so much simpler and give you a far greater understanding of the pit.
Google Earth is also an incredible tool for learning about pits. There is a slider on the top of the Google Earth page that allows you to travel back in time over an image; I have found all sorts of interesting features using this little gizmo, if you are really lucky you may even find an image of the pit half completed.
A couple of the more recent big pits I fished were in Bedfordshire, in an area known as the Marston Vale, this was once the main brick producing county in England, turning out 135 million bricks per year in the 1970’s. As a result there are pits everywhere but the topography varies massively. The Google image I have used here shows the main lake I fished and, as I am sure you will agree, the gravel bar systems are incredible, almost like a huge map of the human back with a shallow spine running up the middle and a multitude of ribs travelling off in both directions.
The appealing features
Obviously not all of these bars are favoured by the carp and the trick was to identify the ones that were and try to find others with the same depth and consistency.
Actually fishing on the tops of gravel bars and plateaux has never really been my favourite approach. I find the large clean area on top to be incredibly hard to get bites from, although the carp can often be seen to feed there. Maybe they are just too blatant and the rigs do not perform so well in these spots. I much prefer the sides of the bars, particularly the small sandy areas that appear around the base of these features. For my money, these are the prime areas on gravel pits and, when I think back to my early days, they were probably the spots we fished even back then.
The tried and trusted method used to be to over cast a bar and drag back the rig until you felt the second or third tap on the rod, indicating that you had just started to climb the bar but were still presented pretty much at the base. Nowadays we wouldn’t dream of dragging back a rig and leaving it there but, using a marker, you can still achieve a similar result.
I suppose, if you think about it, these areas have a lot going for them as the tops of the bars will be scoured by the movement of water and the gullies will naturally collect all the sediment. The halfway house of these little firm areas at the bottom of bars will be relatively clean and often covered in fine sand that can harbour all sorts of natural food but still be presentable for a rig and free offerings.
I know that, when I use a boat, I avoid the big clear spots like the plague, I always go for the smallest spot in a close proximity, aiming for something more subtle and safe from the carp’s perspective but still using the large clear areas on the bar top as a draw for the carp.
Carp definitely use the bars as transit routes and regular visiting spots; often I will still bait these more obvious areas but just present my bait on the fringes. A huge bed of hemp and boilies on a plateau or clean bar and just a scattering around a rig on a tiny spot at the base is a winning combination in my eyes.
The ends of bars can be fantastic areas on large pits as well. If you have a pit with long and regular gravel bars, then there is a fair chance that they will terminate before they reach the bank, often the margins will actually be the deepest spots as they were once boat channels for the gravel barges if it was a wet dug pit or, alternatively, the areas where the machinery was moved up and down on a dry dig.
These bars will not just stop dead, there will be a slope and, quite often, a hump or two at the end, I have caught loads of fish fishing on these spots. Sonning was a prime example of this and a series of bars all petered out about forty-yards from the bank. By picking the right spot I was able to fish one rod on the end of each bar and I caught stacks of fish as they travelled up the lake at night. Bizarrely though, only one bar would produce each night and it was not always the same one!
The only time I will actively fish the more obvious areas is during times of massive weed-growth when the only clear spots left are the formally blatant bar tops and gravel patches. Once these are surrounded by tall weed they become perfect for baiting and, because of the surrounding cover, the carp seem less cautious of your rigs.
Key learning times
Learning a gravel pit in spring and sticking with it throughout the year will make the summer and autumn a lot easier. Knowing what was there before the weed came and masked it all will help no end and, identifying which weed grows where will help to locate those spots that you know are out there somewhere.
Different weeds prefer different types of bottom in which to root and, knowing which prefer what can be a great indicator of what your lead is landing on. Milfoil, the long, dark stemmed, thick stuff with leaves like pine cones will root happily in the thickest of silt, often the areas you are trying to avoid and I have no real confidence fishing amongst this stuff once it becomes densely packed. It also cuts out most of the light, leaving a gloomy scenario beneath its canopy.
Canadian pondweed will cover just about anything and is highly prolific in gravel pits during the summer. The roots do tend to take on the aggregate it grows in however, so check the base of the weed you retrieve to see what lies beneath.
Silkweed, onion weed and clean blanket weed tend to prefer the shallower cleaner areas and it this I look for when trying to re-locate bars after the weed has taken over the pit.
If I am casting and casting and only finding Canadian and then ‘donk’, I hit a firm area and retrieve a shorter, greener, and different type of weed then I know I have found a feature of some sort or another.
As the year moves along into autumn and finally winter, gravel pits change once again and the fish leave the more intricate bar systems, channels and bays and tend to congregate in the open water and less variable depth areas, mainly the deeper middle sections if there are any. This makes for a lot easier fishing and some big hits on large and usually foreboding pits can be had at the right time of year if you know where to cast. When a large head of fish all gang up in deep clear water to feed, then a big bed of bait is definitely the way forward and late autumn, multiple catches can be on the cards. Burghfield proved to be a perfect example of this with most of the lakes stock all residing in one area. Shallower pits will behave differently of course, but anywhere you have a deeper section then the carp can often be found there at this time of year.
Hopefully, just reading through this very basic guide to gravel pit angling, you can see why they are so appealing, there is just so much more going on and so many variables to take into account. The lakes change so much throughout the year and the fish also change their behaviour patterns to suit, there is no such thing as one top swim and every nook and cranny will have its day, and that’s why I love gravel pit angling so much.