By Graham Marsden and Mark Wintle
Mark Wintle and I are keen photographers as well as keen anglers, so when we decided to nip off for a week’s carp fishing in France it was very important to choose a picturesque location. We were fussy about quite a few other things too!
It needed to be a ‘civilised’ holiday with reasonable bankside accommodation; with my creaking joints these days I didn’t want to be bivvying up for a week, especially in France in April when monsoon weather is just as likely as a heat wave (and how true that turned out to be!). A chalet with nice beds or bunks, a cooker and a shower would be ideal. But if it only provided a comfortable shelter from the elements then we could manage the rest with bedchairs, stoves and a supply of fresh water. Being as neither of us wanted to fish at night (we had to be awake during daylight to take photographs), there was one more necessity in the mix: it would have to be a water that produced during the hours of daylight. And as I’ve already said, this was to be a holiday when we could wind down and relax and not a pressured mission to catch fish.
As far as the fishing was concerned we weren’t bothered about catching monsters of 50lb and more, providing the fishery gave us a decent chance of fish over 30lb. If it had the odd ’40’ then so much the better. And most important we wanted the lake exclusively, so we could pander to our photographic needs without disturbing anyone else. I asked David Keep of Angling Lines if he had anything on his books that would go some way towards meeting our requirements.
After the initial, “you don’t want much, do you!” David provided us with a list of about half a dozen waters which, in one way or another, fit the bill, but one of them stood out as the one – Sauvelliere in Pays de la Loire, a 3 ½ acre lake with a good head of 20’s and 30’s, some doubles and the outside chance of a 40. A lovely chalet with solar powered electricity and running, drinkable water, fridge, full cooker, shower and two(!) toilets sits almost on the edge of the lake. It was the kind of venue you dream about owning if you ever won the lottery. Let Mark take up the story:
An unfulfilled ambition
In four decades of fishing, I have tried most forms of freshwater fishing yet catching a big carp remained an unfulfilled ambition. To succeed in this challenge within the constraints of a short holiday it would be vital to find the right venue. When Graham suggested a week’s carp fishing trip to France I jumped at the chance. Yet it was with mixed feelings of excitement and trepidation when we planned this trip. But I needn’t have worried as I was going with Graham who had done it scores of times before and knew the ropes.
With the venue selected and arranged there was much planning to do. We needed to have an idea of the best time of year, to arrange time off work and to ensure that we had the right bait and tackle. On top of that lot we needed to work out what food to take.
The weeks from January when we booked the week soon flew past and it was time for Graham to meet me at my house in Dorset to add my load of gear to an already huge van load that included two large boxes of Quest Baits courtesy of Quest boss Shaun Harrison. Anyhow, we were soon ready for the short trip to Poole Docks for the overnight boat to Cherbourg.
Once the ship’s engineer had discovered the reason for the curious grinding/thundering noise from the centre of the ship was actually Graham’s snoring all was well. Arriving at first light to a scarlet dawn I removed my earplugs and we were soon off the boat and on our way on the quiet roads of Normandy. With little traffic and simple map reading we arrived around midday at lake owner David and Chris’s magnificent stone house in a quiet hamlet of St George Sur Evre. Chris, in the absence of David, who had had to make an unexpected trip back to England, took us to the lake on a hot, still afternoon. The beauty and peacefulness of the lake stunned us to a sudden silence, and this was only broken when we remarked on a group of big carp that basked along one margin of the island. The chalet was excellent and the newly built brick BBQ just crying out for smoking burgers, sausage and chicken portions.
Not too surprisingly, due to the topsy-turvy weather that France has shared along with us, the news about the previous week’s catches was not good, with just seven fish caught. Five of those fell to one angler from one swim despite four anglers fishing around the clock for seven days. The changeable weather conditions and prolonged cold weather had made the carp reluctant to feed well, a total contrast to the same time last year when the lake yielded excellent catches. The hot weather gave us hope that rising temperatures would trigger the carp into feeding properly though this was tempered by a forecast for a rapid return to cool and wet weather on Tuesday and this proved to be correct – in spades!
Resist getting the baits in too quickly
It is always tempting when fishing a new venue to get some baits in the water right away, but it usually pays to take time to have a walk round, do some plumbing, and figure out how best to approach it. We took our time and watched the lake. It was clear there were plenty of big carp in the lake as groups of carp basked in the sunshine, and most of those we saw looked to be in the mid-twenties and upwards bracket. Here and there, patches of bubbles showed where carp were feeding on the bottom, though this was not necessarily a good thing if they were preoccupied with bloodworm that proliferate in the silty lake bed; they would take some weaning off them if that was the case.
Following unpacking we then put a big pan of Quest’s Garlic flavoured particles (well why not, we were in France!) to soak in lake water, which were later boiled until soft and, more important, safe for the fish. Following a period of plumbing and dragging a lead through a few swims to check the bottom make-up and for snags, and then quietly watching the lake for a few hours we selected two swims where we would begin fishing and two more that we would prebait and leave unfished for at least 48 hours.
The first choice swims we would fish were along the left hand bank, where two rods would be cast across the lake to the edge of an overhanging willow tree that looked very inviting and where we had seen fish swirling under the branches. Unfortunately we didn’t have a baitboat, for that would have allowed us a much quieter approach and we could have dropped a couple of baits right under the branches. But at least we could walk round and bait the swim by hand.
Another mid lake area consistently had rolling fish and patches of bubbles. Two rods would go there. The final area was against one end of the island near another overhanging willow tree; that two would receive two baits. Once we had the gear unpacked it was late afternoon when we started fishing, having first primed three of the swims with Quest Rahja Spice pellets and boilies and three with Quest’s Special Crab pellets and boilies, both chopped and whole.
However, it seemed the carp were content to swim around in loose groups on the top, and were easily scared by any disturbance, tending to move away from it, and no runs were forthcoming in those few hours fished on the first day as they were obviously in no mood for feeding.
Graham: I wasn’t too surprised as you never know what the party who have preceded you have thrown in before they left. On many of the carp fishing trips I’ve made to France, where one party of anglers are continually following another, no one knowing just what and how much bait the preceding party have thrown in, it’s usually taken 24 to 48 hours for the fish to get over the previous baiting and get switched on to yours. Sometimes what happens is that the party who are leaving are left with a huge amount of cooked particles that they just dump into the water rather than cart them back home, especially in hot weather.
Mark: The following morning dawned bright and clear and the rods were in position before the sun climbed over the horizon. The day grew steadily hotter with the carp repeating the pattern of disinterested surface cruising. Attempts to get them to feed on surface baits proved fruitless (as usual in almost all waters in France) and we could only hope that they would get their heads down properly for some action. After midday, the weather started to change. It became cooler and cloudier; a foretaste of what was to follow.
In the early evening Graham got the first run on a bait that was tight against the bush. Graham’s fish playing skills soon had it well away from the bush into open water, it wasn’t long before a very short and tubby carp graced the landing net. At 14lbs odd, it was a start even if it was one of the very few carp in the water that was less than 20lbs. By this time, we had chilled out in the beautiful surroundings. Later, just after darkness had set in we drew the rods in. Graham had downed a couple of cans, a glass of wine or two, a few glasses of malt and was so chilled out he fell over and went to sleep.
The next day was much cooler; in the space of twenty-four hours the temperatures plummeted from mid seventies to mid forties. It wasn’t just the carp that were confused; we were too, going from burning to shivering almost overnight. We were faced with a now seemingly carp-less lake. The surface showing of the carp had vanished as had the bubbling. Even liners were non-existent, and even worse the rain was setting in. Little did we know what would follow in the next 48 hours.
Graham: During Monday night, it rained on and off (mainly on) all night and there was no doubt that the water had cooled considerably. We replaced lightweight trousers and tee shirts with thermals, several layers and full waterproofs as we squelched around the lake in that claggy French clay trying to figure what tactics might produce a run in the adverse conditions. I remember thinking that the cooling and freshening of the water may just trigger the carp into a brief feed, or it could go the other way and put paid to any feeding for another prolonged spell.
Although (according to the log book) the swims near the chalet had rarely produced in the previous month, there were a couple of areas, one at each point of the island, where the odd carp was still rolling and they were the two other swims we had prebaited. So we decided, in light of the grim conditions, we would be better off fishing closer to the chalet, for then we would at least be dry and comfortable while we waited for the weather (we hoped) to take a turn for the better. In view of the detrimental effect of the massive influx of cold water, and the fact that we had already prebaited the swims, we fed the swims near the island sparingly, introducing just a dozen or so boilies around each bait.
A magic hour, two 30s and a PB by over 14lbs!
Mark: We then had one of those magic hours that make the waiting, the rain, the cold, the fishless hours, all instantly forgotten. It was breakfast time, two hours or so after we’d begun fishing, when I hit the first one, a one-toner heading East for Le Mans at impressive speed, and after a short but spirited fight Graham slipped the net under a gorgeous carp. As he lowered the carp onto the unhooking mat he exclaimed that he thought it might be a thirty (his exact words are unprintable as were mine but you get the drift). It was a fraction over 31lbs on the Salters. Photos done we slipped her back and I recast. One day, I vowed, I will catch a twenty! I had just added 14 pounds odd to my personal best!
Graham: Less than thirty minutes later, at the opposite end of the island, it was my turn for a run as the alarm beeped once and then became a single scream as something big took off across the lake. Suddenly, this one turned and came back at me, heading for the island, opposite to the side I was fishing. Impending disaster loomed if I didn’t act fast. So I made sure I was on a tight line and passed the rod hand to hand round two trees so I could pressure the fish from a better angle. It worked and a short fight later it lay in the folds of the big net on top of the unhooking mat. Like the previous fish it was a full bellied mirror and simply huge. At thirty-five pounds two ounces, it was the best carp from the lake this year so far, and meant that we had achieved our original aim of each landing a thirty-pound carp during the week. Those two runs came during a brief respite from the rain that had set in with a vengeance. That night I vowed to have an extra tot or two in celebration, for we could really relax now and lose any thoughts we may have had of having a poor week.
Mark: The heavy rain didn’t ease until late afternoon when I got the next run, a hard fighting twenty six pounder that capped a tremendous day. From this point on, we could relax and concentrate on the photography that we’d planned whilst still trying to catch carp. An hour after that last carp the rain returned and pelted down all night and most of the following day too. In 36 hours, we had a month’s worth of rain. David, the lake’s owner, measured the downfall at two inches overnight, and we reckoned another two inches had fallen since.
The lake had chilled and the carp had, after that flurry of action, gone to ground. The only good news was that the forecast was for a slow improvement in the weather; perhaps the carp would feed again. The variable weather did give us opportunity to photograph the lake in many conditions from early morning mist and dew, to dark clouds lit with sunshine and even hail and rainbows. Thursday saw a very slow warming of the lake – we’d had the log-burning stove going in the cabin to warm up ourselves and drive out the damp from our clothes the previous two days – and finally another run for Graham that resulted in a hard fighting carp of over twenty-seven pounds.
Try as we might we didn’t get another run to conventional tactics but careful observation of the willow bush area that had produced the fourteen pounder earlier in the week tempted us to bait right next to the bank with particle mix, hemp and sweetcorn. We then took it in turns to float fish (using a carp rod with 12lb line) very close in whilst sitting well back from the bank.
We rested this swim often, never fishing it for more than an hour, as it was easy to disturb the fish at such close range, not least because it was easy to get tangled in the willow branches. Whoever was not float fishing manned three of the conventional rods at the other end of the lake. We certainly had plenty of bites on hair-rigged sweetcorn from the carp though hitting them was problematic. A high proportion of the bites were liners that we attempted to overcome through fishing well over-depth, and the one bite that I did hit resulted in the carp coming off after ten seconds, a consequence of the inefficiency of hooking big carp when striking upwards compared to the bolt rig/short hook link effectiveness in bottom lip hooking. No more runs were forthcoming on the conventional rods.
All too soon, Saturday morning came around, heralded by a rosy dawn that preceded a fine warm day much as when we’d arrived. We were sad to leave such a peaceful retreat far from the madding crowd where the main disturbance was birdsong. Whether we shall ever return is down to chance but what will definitely remain are indelible memories of a beautiful lake, huge carp and me making more sense of carp fishing in seven days than in seven years. The deserted French roads made it easy going back to Cherbourg; finally arriving back in Poole by 11pm. Graham was faced with the long haul back to Stoke in the morning but with bank holiday Monday to recover we both had chance to be ready for work once again.
We’d like to thank David and Bridget Keep of Angling Lines, David and Chris Ayres of Sauvelliere (especially for inviting Graham back to his home to watch the Manchester United Vs Barcelona match!), Magicalia, Shaun Harrison of Quest Baits, Dave Chilton of Kryston, Richard Griffiths of Shimano, John Walsh of Korum and Paul Garner of Wychwood for supplying tackle and/or bait, all of which performed admirably during the week, and finally our long-suffering wives for letting us leave them to cope for a week.