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

“In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love”. Alfred, Lord Tennyson may well have been right about the mental gymnastics of young men but for us, severely creased males peering at the arse-end of forty years, May sees our thoughts focus on the start of the carp onslaught proper. And if we are focused on fishing so are many others. Whereas last month we had much of the The Lake and other waters to ourselves, most fishermen and their vessels still dry-docked and tightly snugged with all weather covers, now we had to resume our combat with over-powered bass boats that leave a wake large enough to float away tackle boxes carelessly left too close to the water, and pleasure cruisers intent on coming as close to the bank as possible and so straight over our lines and baited areas. The up-side of this month is that the carp are well and truly on the move exemplified by a short session on the Local River producing twenty carp between five and fifteen pounds in four hours fishing.

The ubiquitous bass boat. They look nice and peaceful at rest.

This increasing activity combined with the fish we’d already had from The Lake found us eager to return.

So we did. We chose the same swim for two reasons. The fact that we had caught from it in April was something in the way of motivation and though the catching was a little inconsistent, landing seven fish, three of which were over twenty pounds does tend to focus the mind. It also gave us confidence that the fish we had seen cavorting out in The Lake really might be the monstrosities we imagined them to be since none of the low twenties we banked were anywhere near the size of some of the fish we’d seen briefly leaving the water.

The other reason we chose the same swim is a characteristic issue faced by all those who fish from the bank in this north-east area of America, an area that may be a little south of the “Great North Woods” but is still covered, agriculture and urban areas aside, with trees. On most waters we have fished finding a swim can be difficult. There are always a few at the usual access points - marinas, boat launches, bridges, camp grounds - but ploughing your own path down the river bank or around the lake shore can be very hard work. The idea of a carp angler getting into these desirable and little fished areas with their Nash Trax Cargo barrows piled with all the gear is, amusing. A pith helmet and a machete are more like the essential tools for the job. For example, one particular arm of The Lake we call Spigot Lick (for reasons of illiteracy) has extensive weed beds, large silt banks and a clearly defined central channel. It’s a must. But there is no access. That is unless you have a boat. Or wish to hump all your gear across three-and-a-half pathless miles (braving ticks laden with Lyme disease, bears with intentions on your corn and the odd ne’er-do-well with a blunt instrument) to the pitch of your desire. It is getting to the state where we know the areas we want to fish on a number of waters, but the only realistic way in to them is by boat. We are considering buying one. Since we are both confirmed land-lubbers it should make for interesting copy if we do.

Despite lacking much of the carp fishers standard equipment we do have a baiting boat.

Taking all that into account, revisiting the swim we caught in last month was an obvious, if less adventurous, choice. It still requires a two-mile walk but at least there is a relatively well-defined path. Mrs. Andy accompanied us this time, as a surrogate beastess of burden, a necessary curb on Andy’s excesses and more generally for her ability to raise the tone of any place she happens to be in.

We also brought a secret weapon. This lake can have something of a weed problem and though it wasn’t apparent in the still cool water of April we felt it was taking a bit of a risk to think it wouldn’t be in May after two further weeks of rampant growth in the warm weather. So enter stage left, the dredgernaught.

Got a weed problem? Try the “Dredgernaught”. Only $99.99 + tax. Go on. You know you want one.

Andy had cobbled together some bits of metal to make a natty weed rake. Simon duly sang its praises as it reminded him of pictures of Fred J. Taylor hurling something similar into a weed festooned tench lake sometime back in the dim and distant ‘70s. On arrival the contraption, now attached to a rope, was rowed out in the kayak dropped over the side and subsequently hauled back in. We needn’t have bothered. There was hardly any weed growth. What it did do though was shift a large log in Simon’s swim (previously an innocuous lump) that would cause him all sorts of grief during the session. Still that was for later. Now we filled in with corn and began to wile away the time angling for the local panfish and catching a nice little bass - possibly the first bass in the history of American fishing to be caught on a genuine quivertip.

Olde timey English quivertip tactics banked this most American of fish.

All this pootling around with the light ledger gear was indicative of the lack of action. Once again the afternoon and early evening saw not only no activity to our rods but also no carp movement out on the lake.

As dusk approached we at last began to see, and certainly hear, large fish crashing. Andy connected after dark with a low double and then later with another lovely fish of sixteen pounds. But that was it until the morning in terms of fish banked. Like last month’s two night visit, we heard and saw a lot of fish moving but could not induce more than a few half-hearted beeps out of the indicators and these two moderate fish conjured from the dark.

Andy’s fin perfect sixteen pounder did rather clash with his anti-camo shorts.

Indeed all of these beeps and what little real activity we did have came to Andy. Simon caught bugger all. There were still fish crashing over both our swims in the early morning though so Andy’s cornering of the action was not simply a matter of the fish being confined to his patch. We reasoned that the activity we were seeing was due to fish cruising in and out of the bay and not getting their heads down on our bait in any sort of concerted manner. Additionally, as a portion of the corn kernels introduced floated Simon, in a rare moment of, well, let’s be generous, a moment of low-wattage illumination, imagined some sort of suspended bait might be the ticket.

Simon caught bugger all.

Having a pre-Delkin memory of using balanced bread paste and crust suspended well off the bottom by an Arlesey bomb, a very amateur Zig(ish) rig was improvised. Yellow, corn-like foam suspended two grains of real corn (buoyancy was aided by a submerged ‘float’ pierced by the inner tube of a Bic biro) about five feet off the bottom in seven feet of water. After a bit of a soak the rig produced a run and full of the pride of his intellectual might Simon tightened into the rapidly disappearing fish. Trouble was the line had already draped itself through the dredgernaught revealed log and though there was contact with the running fish, the inevitable scouring soon saw Simon and the (undoubtedly huge) carp part company.

Our bespoke Zig(ish) rig components. Float choice is a matter of both grave consideration and some inebriation.

Andy banked another low double in the brightly lit morning and then we left for home happy to have caught but once again left to ponder the peculiar situation of having numbers of carp active in front of us but, Zig(ish) rig or not, being unable to make many of them stop to feed on our baited area.

Afterwards our dissection of the session naturally turned to the question of baits. We discussed location too of course and to a lesser extent rigs, but bait is always an easy factor on which to focus. We’ve almost exclusively been using corn on the hair and a mix of corn and crumb as a feeder and groundbait mix. In the face of some frustration alternatives to corn, or something to add attractiveness to our feeder and ground bait mixes, have begun to occupy our thoughts. If we were in the UK we could step into our local tackle shop and peruse a great range of options. Here in the States those options are considerably limited.

In the UK bait fishing dominates the angling scene, its use characterises the sort of fishing most people do most of the time and that’s because the sort of fish most people angle for, mainly members of the wider carp family, respond well to the kind of cereal based baits and groundbaits we’ve traditionally used. Here in America though, ‘bait’ is often regarded as a dirty word. There is no tradition of developing bait fishing because the group of fish most American anglers fish for are all members of the perch family. These fish - from the farm pond bluegill many first catch as children, through to the industry supporting largemouth bass - murder little insects and crustaceans when young and each other when older. They don’t dig cereal based baits and don’t respond as a shoal to groundbaiting. It is the main reason that American’s have developed a way of fishing based on mobility and artificial lures. That said there are a variety of baits available even if they are a sideline to the artificial mainstay of the American anglers' arsenal.

The live bait fridge. A standard feature in fishing tackle outlets, most rural garages and any shop close to water.

“Live baits” are the most apparent. Nightcrawlers (lobworms to you and us), red worms and green worms along with some flaccid and wholly unappetising wax, meal and butter worms are all readily available. Astonishingly, given that most fishing outlets have at least one fridge dedicated to these live baits, America doesn’t do maggots - or “spikes” as they are known. To get any, one has to brave mail order and hope that temperatures during postage don’t give the little wrigglers wings before they arrive.

The other baits available fall into two categories. The fishing company Berkley, with their signature Powerbait and Gulp! products, dominate one area of the market. Powerbait is a paste or dough and comes in a range of, well, a range of, urrm – well, colours we suppose. Colours like “Captain America” and “Glitter Chroma-Glow dough”. We kid you not.

A very small sample of the array of coloured baits that can be found.

How much the baits are designed to catch the angler and how much to catch the fish is debatable. And what they are really made of is unknown. There is no content list, no attempt to bolster the credentials of the bait by extolling the fine ingredients that have gone into its making. It’s not even obvious whether the stuff is actually edible. There is simply the tag line that “Fish bite and won’t let go”. Even with this limited information Powerbait and Gulp! dominate the market and are moulded onto hooks to attract almost all fish that swim here.

The second area bait really has some standing is when fishing for catfish. Types span from simple cheese based pastes to arcane and often jealousy guarded recipes. These homemade catfish baits are part of the lore of this type of fishing and their manufacture has a down-home, back of the garden feel where time is spent stewing and reducing chicken livers and soured hogs brains before mashing in quantities of blood and rotten fish. It is bait. But not as many of us know it and until we get that desperate we’ll likely give it a miss.

Off-the-shelf catfish baits. Most involve some form of offal, blood or brains. Oh, and rotting fish of course.

On the other hand we might be tempted by some of the more reasonable paste versions, especially the toned down, mass-market catfish baits, but we then run into another of the basic differences between the use of bait in America and in the old country. The catfish dough baits can come, like boilies, as individual balls or ‘chunks’. But they only come in six ounce (about a fifth of a kilo) bags. The basic Powerbait and Gulp! pastes are worse being sold in jars of less than two ounces. This might be fine if these baits were solely for the hook and there was a range of other baits that could be used as attractors, feeding stimulants or groundbait in some form or other. There isn’t. So it’s clear that Americans don’t do pre-baiting or groundbaiting in any substantial form. In fact they don’t even know what groundbait is - “chumming” it is called over here and as an adjunct to bait fishing is spoken of with disdain. Indeed, recently a kindly local informed Andy that "chumming" was illegal to which he replied cryptically in a most enunciated English accent, "I am angling for carp and do not own a bow".

Forsaking what the Americans have to offer means we could go all retro and start to chuck in bread in various forms, par-boiled potatoes, luncheon meat (bloody Vikings!) and other ready made, off the supermarket shelf, bait. But in the land of the free it seems slightly ridiculous going to great lengths when the carp we angle for have rarely, most likely never, seen a baited hook aimed directly at their downfall. Persisting with sweetcorn makes much sense. The brightly coloured kernels are great attractors, carp seem to love the taste and the fact that it is still widely used in the UK even on the hardest waters is a mark of its longevity.

But persisting with the little yellow grains also means ignoring the claims of the modern bait industry, claims that from the scientific point of view (where our origins lie) are interesting, nay tantalising. Given we cannot spend a week on the lake waiting for the fish to reach the frenzy we desire, we wonder whether this stuff actually works in the short term, works for a day visit or a single overnighter. We mean work not in the fine scaled, hair-splitting sense of whether CC Moore’s ‘Equinox’ is better than DNAs ‘Secret 7’ is better than Nash’s ‘The Key’, one of which may give you an edge on waters where the carp are almost solely on an angler food diet and recognise boilies and their ilk at a glance. No, we mean would they, along with their associated mixes, attract, stimulate and hold feeding carp in our swims better than a bed of corn when these carp are large, wild and clueless about baits. In other words, does all that research and development by the bait companies actually give us an edge over a can (well, many cans) of corn? It is an intriguing thought and one we are considering putting to the test.

Which would our carp prefer?

While these thoughts on bait turned over we decided to let the dust settle on The Lake for a little while and instead planed a trip to the Record River. The Record River is the same as the Local River, just a bit further downstream. This decreased distance to the sea has required the river’s tree-lined waistband to be let out some and the increased space filled with a much larger quantity of water. “Look for deeper holes and around islands” we were told and so we did just that. The town we were prompted to make for had both a road and a rail bridge crossing the river within a Molotov cocktail’s throw of one another. The first fish we saw on peering over one bridge was a carp. And the second. And the third. And so on. They were not shy in their perambulations and occasional diving into the accumulated silt but nor were they records. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Nevertheless, and despite this being the sort of place one expects to stumble across a hirsute, bedraggled and sweetly stinking hobo, if not something far, far worse, we dipped our baits here first.

We did persist but soon decided that the few carp we were seeing had things carnal rather than consuming on their mind. In addition, we noticed a packet of ladies knee-high hosiery among the usual accumulation of under-bridge rubbish. We’re sure this has something to do with fishing for catfish but what exact form that might take we are way to innocent to offer an explanation.

So rather daunted we upped sticks and went for a drive round but once again were frustrated by a lack of access. A great deal of the water frontage was taken up by holiday caravans permanently dewheeled and laid to rest on their own little mown stretch of bank. The rest was simply inaccessible with the aforementioned forest crowding down to the very edge of the water. Eventually, under another rail bridge, we found a parking spot and some access. A thin footpath led to an opening with a firepit on whose ashes nestled two empty cans of sweetcorn. The pitch overlooked an area of slack water off the main flow in which an impressive mudbank had accumulated. Even more impressive were the amount of bubbles and the clear mushroom clouds of disturbed muck thrown up by feeding fish. We set up immediately, four of our rods covering the slack water and two venturing out into the edge of the current. Andy was away to a strong fish almost immediately, which Simon wandered over to net making the usual helpful comments such as “are you going to bring it in then?”

Andy and his fish. Recovered and lively, the fish (the fish mark you) was all muscle. Andy just wanted the pictorial trauma over.

Andy eventually did and the fish proved to be a dark and lean river carp of fourteen pounds. In the next four hours nothing much happened. Two fish rolled over our baits but most of the activity was identified as suckers - a kind of under-gunned barbel. Finally, as Simon was trying to free the snagged rod he’d placed in the main flow so that he could start packing up, the buzzer on his close rod sounded and he was in to a ponderous fish. The carp fought heavily giving Andy ample time to recover all of Simon's snagged tackle whereupon he eventually wandered over with the net making helpful comments like “looks smaller than mine, hardly worth the net”. Once landed the fish proved to be somewhat bigger than Andy’s impish estimate tipping the scales at just under twenty-one pounds and in doing so established a new river record for us.

A fat (second) christening present from the Record River.

And so we wrapped up May. Discombobulated by The Lake we had nevertheless landed a lovely fish from the Record River. In June however, our less than attentive attitude to work and the more routine matters of everyday life would have to be balanced by actually going to work, entertaining non-fishing visitors and coping with the fact that the school holidays would start half-way through the month. Any fishing time from then until the close of summer would be hard won and likely involve the pretense of camping trips, river picnics and other water associated deceptions. Still we had two weeks of June before the net tightened. And as it turned out those two weeks proved to be rather special. You can read all about it in June’s Carp Letter from America.

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