CARPology Columnists

Carp Letter from America: October 2018

Simon Blanford and Andy Bell let us know what they've been up to this month...

“This month, as Autumn is in full bloom in much of the nation, the weekends will be devoted by many of you to leaf peeping and football … watch….ing … Leaf peeping. Is that something we do now?”

No, it isn’t, to promptly put an end to President Bartlett’s bemused query. But change is here. The heavy and slightly shop-soiled greens of late summer have gone, replaced by the vibrant, citric reds, yellows and oranges of autumn. Vibrant but brief. Soon the branches will be bare once more and there will be little doubt that winter is coming (to use that somewhat hackneyed phrase) and the carp fishing will be done for another season. Yet, before Andy carefully cleans and packs everything away and Simon hurls his kit into the corner of the garage to leave it festering until the spring, there was still time to do a little fishing.

Truth be told neither of us actually relish the colder months. Our fishing at the back end of the year has an ad hoc feel to it, a last minute, sniff the air, scuff the ground, read the entrails of chickens sort of determination about it. We know it might be slow going and want to prevaricate, looking for all the portends that suggest it might be a good day to get out there without too much disappointment if we divine that it is not. And day is an exaggeration. A good morning, or afternoon, a half day at the most. Simon went with this kind of indeterminate attitude when he managed to get out in late October. He took a book, a large flask of coffee, another of hot Ribena (comfort food, drink, whatever) and a bag of mini Snickers. He had no confidence that anything would, you know, actually pick up his bait and so needed the distractions to while away the time, even as he was attempting to show he was at least making the effort.

‘ello, ‘ello, ‘ello and what do we have here then?

Two hours into his session the alarm bleeped once. Simon put down Bora Horza Gobuchul and his subterranean battle with the Idirans to watch the rod. The alarm bleeped again. Simon didn’t believe it and told it so in no uncertain terms. In answer another bleep, the line pulled tight, the tip bent round and the box of tricks burst into full and delightful song. Simon picked up the rod and wound down, into nothing. The rig came back unattached to anything scaly, the little, white Northern Special pop-up sitting just right on its 360 rig as if no aquatic denizen had recently mouthed the bait. Missed runs are something of a downer at the best of times, but when it might be the only action of the day they can have a hugely dampening effect on one’s equanimity. Simon had a large mug of Ribena to recover. Two hours later the plastic corn went and this time he stayed attached. It was only a small fellow, eight or nine pounds yet it sprinted around in an eager, adolescent way, was summarily netted, unhooked and released. Immediately the other rod was off and a larger fish was played and landed. Things were looking up - except that time had run out, duty called and Simon had to pack up for the day.

A late season fish among the dying reeds

A week later, mindful of his previous success, Simon had another short session. Cool rain and a drop in night time temperature during the intervening days had dampened his enthusiasm somewhat yet, as in all fishing, there was still that glimmer of hope with which we are all familiar. And the day played out in a similar manner. Once again a couple of hours after casting out the line pulled tight and this time a mid-double scrapped all the way to the net, a fine plump fish full of the fruits of autumn. Later in the afternoon another picked up the rig cast against the branches of the sunken tree. It wallowed, it shrugged, it never seemed to right itself for a determined effort as it was pumped back across the bay until, too late, it was engulfed by the net. Another mid-double, slightly larger than the last and again plump, unblemished and ready for the winter. It went back into water that was noticeably cool if not quite yet the frigid liquid of early spring. Simon fished on into an early dusk. A loon came to investigate the bay, a large low-slung diver, a goose-sized bird the author Arthur Ransome named the last of his famous children’s series after. Nothing more came and the bird, with that supercilious tilt of the head all divers have, eyed Simon suspiciously as he packed in, knowing that it was unlikely he’d get out again for another five months.

A chubby little fellow at the last

Writing this in November, the first dusting of snow covering the ground, one can’t help wonder about the coming months. Much of the information about what carp do in winter and how one should fish for them comes, not surprisingly, from an English perspective. Here it is possible to catch carp in winter too (and more so in rivers - except we are crap at river fishing so the less said on that score the better) but the type of winter we have is markedly different. It may get testy every now and then in England and the soft southern gits (of which Simon and Andy are both paid up, life members) might even see snow once in a blue moon, but cold? The idea makes us come over all Pythonesque - “by ‘eck, you call that cold? Why when I were a lad it was so cold we could play marbles with our frozen eyeballs … and that were in’t summer,” etc., etc.

We can swap coldest stories ad infinitum but the real question here is how it affects carp? It’s actually rather difficult to imagine. We are endotherms; we have this great furnace inside us maintaining a constant body temperature. When we feel cold it is not because we actually are but because our body is telling us to do something so it doesn’t have to expend more energy maintaining our thermal equilibrium. Physiologically we move blood vessels away from the skin surface, our few hairs stand up to trap a large boundary area of warmer air, we might shiver to generate heat. Behaviourally we put on another layer of clothes or stand closer to the fire. Carp are ectotherms, they can’t do this sort of thing. Unlike some fish, and then only a very small group of ocean goers like Bluefin Tuna which have a counter-current heat exchange mechanism (marvelously called a rete mirabile) that redistributes the warmth generated by muscular effort to the rest of the body, they have no mechanism available to generate heat internally. As temperatures fall carp can seek warmer areas (it’s claimed they can sense changes in water temperature as subtle as 0.1°C) to try and stay within their operative range but that’s about it. And when that resource runs out they just have to accept the cold and its effect. A couple of degrees drop in our body temperature causes hypothermia, but for carp body temperature may drop all the way down to their critical thermal minimum before any ill effect becomes manifest. Nobody, to our knowledge, has actually determined this for carp, but it’s supposedly somewhere around 2°C. In our large lakes though water temperature often remains at a quite stable 4°C. Carp, once acclimated to their new environment may mooch around every now and then, may even eat a little (though this occurs much less on our large deep lakes than it does on many of the small shallow waters of the UK) but in general little seems to go on. Of course and unlike us, carp can recover promptly as soon as the water surrounding them warms up. In England this may be the case for much of the winter except for the coldest spells but here water temperatures under the ice remain fairly stable until the Spring thaw.

Behaviourally carp tend to do two things starting when the thermometer dips below about 8°C. One is that they seek deeper water. It doesn’t have to the deepest water available to them - on some lakes carp have been recorded overwintering at 6-10 feet - but it is generally deeper water than they’ll be in during the warmer months and many of these lakes have good depth, anywhere between 25 and 50 feet. Carp also aggregate, coming together in a large group towards the end of November as the temperature dives below double digits. The aggregations that form generally hold the majority of the adult carp population (sub-adults seem to do something different). What’s more these aggregations appear to have strong site fidelity. That is, the same wintering areas are used year after year. What it is about these sites that make parts of a winter lake consistently more attractive than any other isn’t known. But, if you find one and the temperatures aren’t too frigid, you may be in luck. That is if you find one before the ice covers the surface and only the nutters venture out.

They’re out there, vast Zeppelins waiting for the thaw.

It’s always been the case that people thought that carp, like tench (and swallows in fact who, one raving loon from the early 1800s said when trying to explain their winter absence, spent the cool months at the bottom of ponds buried in the mud) burrow down into the muck found on the lake bed. It’s true that carp can become comatose in the coolest water temperatures and spent a great deal of time apparently inert even if they don’t deliberately inter themselves. However, there have been recordings of carp well off the bottom, suspended in mid-water. Obviously English anglers know all about zigs for winter fishing but here in depths between 30 and 50 feet that would be some tactic. If you could find the fish in 1500 acres of water. Why they sit off the bottom on occasion isn’t clear. Perhaps there is a slight temperature inversion, perhaps way down there conditions have got a bit hypoxic, or perhaps it’s simply to get away from the inane chatter of Walleyes. Who knows. But out there under the ice, in the middle of the dark winter the fact that they do is something to conjure with: silent behemoths suspended in the cold, dark water like spaceships in the void.

Unlike Simon, Andy had no protracted plans for October, his waders being far from unimpeachable (much like our beloved liar-in-chief). His final session of the year contained much more light and warmth than the previous few paragraphs might suggest. At the beginning of the month he and Mrs Andy decamped back to the Other Lake, the one our catches have declined on and indeed the one where we’ve had to switch from our comfortable shore side cabin to rough it in the wilds surrounded by bears (see August’s CLfromA). This time though Andy headed back to the cabins and familiar swims. Comfort might have been a factor but he also knew that in the adjoining accommodation, the Welsh would have arrived. Len Deighton, the admirable author of the Harry Palmer series, (yes, we know the vast majority of you won’t have heard of Harry Palmer nor of the iconic film adaptations featuring a very youthful Michael Caine - but, we can’t be responsible for your ignorance in the important things in life) made a telling observation. “The Welsh,” he wrote, “are gourmets at the feast of insults.” Andy prepared to sharpen his tongue.

The Andy's would also bade a last farewell to Vince, one of the Other Lake's finest employees, whist they were meeting up with the carping Brits. Well, OK, one of these intrepid pioneers wasn't, quite: Vern is an ex-pat, living but a few miles from Carp Letters' epicentre. His friend, Paul, by contrast was not only a true American carp virgin but also, bless him, domiciled in the carpless wilderness that is Scotland. Nevertheless, it does have to be said that they are both of dubious heritage, being Welsh; but hell, there's no bigotry here and all are welcome as long as your native tongue isn't Spanish, you don't wear a Korda Burka, partake in caravanning, or are unable to refrain from "oggy oggy oggying".

When the Andy's arrived the lads had been in residence for two days and they'd caught three fish, including a mid-twenty for the more experienced Vern. They had proper gear and proper boilies; there were rabbits' ears on their buzzers, buzzers with remote alarms; their landing net was without unintended holes and their unhooking mat was bereft of teddy bear motifs. F***, these were serious boyos.

Vern with a lovely chunk of carp

Having introduced his CARPology-emblazoned self, and thus, obviously, having seriously fazed the interloping affable newcomers - even before they'd witnessed his display of carptastic technology - Andy set up shop from the cabin next door. The neighbours were fishing to most of the known, productive, far bank spots (with the aid of a canoe), although they hadn't nabbed the, semi-shared, near point swim. Whilst the near point is often rewarding it can also be trying. Simon has rarely lost tackle to it, Andy has lost a shed-load. Standing amidst the lilies it is only a twenty foot plop, but err in your accuracy and you'll connect with a totally unforgiving topography: cue the float-ledger and none of Andy's usual minor positional adjustments upon hitting bottom. The other rods would be directly out in front, just beyond the eel-grass in a snag-less 10ft of water at seven rod lengths.

The lads were 100% on boilies, often with bags, but were introducing - by Andy's standards - very limited amounts of additional freebies. As we've stated in previous Carp Letters the hut swims had not been kind to us in recent years, which, Andy reasoned, probably accounted for the lads' limited rewards thus far. Nevertheless, only the week before, the residents of the Legendary lake had been totally up for a good nosh and the chosen spots were duly baited, generously, with the same seed, peanut and corn mix.

It has been said that Andy is a tad competitive; Simon is far more zen. That is unless things really get out of kilter. Anyway, by midday Andy's rods were in. At 1pm a buzzer sounded, the mere quality of the tone, it not being a strangled dying groan, immediately told that it was not one of his. Grabbing a beverage Andy nipped through the bushes to investigate and found Vern sliding the net under what looked like a reasonable fish. Indeed, it was another twenty. The Welsh had caught but three fish in two days and then within two hours of Andy's arrival.

A portly Other Lake common

The afternoon was still, warm, indeed sunny; Mrs Andy was having a ball. Andy hadn't had as much as a line bite; there again all had been equally quiet next door. At 4pm things changed, dramatically. Almost mirroring the previous week's excursion the fish suddenly moved in and it became hectic: a slip-off (immediate rig change), a catfish, a catfish, a small teen, a catfish, a slip-off (yawn, a rig change: f***ing cats), a nineteen, an eleven, a sixteen, and still not a knock for the neighbours. Andy mused on his magnificence. And then on his fishes' size. They were predominantly catching twenties, he, currently, was not.

And then at around 11.30pm the yelps of delight, or pain, or anguish (or Welsh male bonding) saw Andy again - tentatively this time - parting the bushes and peering into what he hoped might reveal a carp capture (he'd seen Rosemary's baby). Sure enough Paul's rapture was evident for all to see and lying plump and radiant between his wet parted legs was a rather fine looking fish, his first ever twenty. He was rather chuffed.

Paul gets his twenty

At midnight, with remote buzzers to hand, the neighbours retired to their cabin. Andy, resolutely, continued, his two barely functioning buzzers poised - he hoped - and, with his eyes beginning to droop, the third line cunningly looped around his left testicle. At 1.30am there was a mighty screech as Andy's left testicle projected itself into the lake, a mere discombobulation as the tightened line ultimately produced his first twenty. Cue a loud chorus of "sweet chariot" closely followed by a less theatrical whimper to Mrs Andy for a needle and thread. Following two more paltry additions, at 2.30am the rods came in and he went to bed.

The next two days continued in much the same manner: Andy drank caught a lot, of predominantly smaller fish, whilst the neighbours laboured, increasingly, for the odd, somewhat larger fish. At one point Paul came over for a quick social just as Andy was returning a fish; and then, as Andy was re-plonking in the point swim, Paul witnessed the not so uncommon occurrence of an instantaneous take: not quite on the drop, but within seconds of settlement. And this does quite amaze Andy: that one can, not so discretely, wade within twenty feet of one's targets, chuck a 3oz weight among the assembled throng and have one of their number immediately gobble up the offered fare. But, equally, this does pose the question: whilst the disturbance - obviously - isn't spooking all local fish, maybe the larger beasts are wise to the game; there again, maybe there are simply so many fish present that the senior weights - purely by chance - just don't get to the offering first?

In the end of this little two nations comparison the Welsh caught fewer but noticeably larger fish, five twenties to Andy’s two and thirteen in total to Andy’s thirty odd. It might not be the last word in the boilie versus particle debate but it was food for thought.

What there is no doubt about though is that meeting, and fishing alongside those guys was a real pleasure - and something we don't often get to enjoy. Maybe, in the future, it will become a more common occurrence. However, unless you are similarly Welsh, pleasant and discrete we’d say, stay the f*** away, you really wouldn't like it here.

So ends our season. An up and down summer with, as is not hard to do here, many fine fish landed. The very largest specimens still elude us but there’s always next year. Up next we do an interview. Drop by to see what someone else involved in carp fishing this side of the pond has to say in November’s Carp Letter from America.