Sweating in the Cold by John Bailey

This is how my fishing is these days. I’m almost always involved in sessions less than twelve hours long that are intense and very sharply focused. I’ll either be guiding, filming or product testing. And, whichever the three, it’s almost always desperately important to catch. I sometimes envy the carpers down at Kingfishers, asleep in their bivvies, making tea or chatting idly. I’d love that space and that time but I just don’t have it. In some ways, my Carp fishing is almost like fishing a match. There are always pressures; my eye is always on the clock.

Perhaps because of this pressure, I try harder. Virtually every season, I catch twenties, thirties and even sometimes forties for my guided clients. I push them hard, too. I don’t like it if they make mistakes. A missed or a lost fish really is not good. In all probability, we’ll have worked really hard for the chance and the one that got away isn’t much good back in the bar. Of course, I have a wide portfolio of waters, some quite large like the Kingfisher at twenty-odd acres and some much smaller. Some are medium to difficult and others medium down to quite easy. I obviously tend to choose waters depending on my client’s ability and aspiration or whether a film is demanding quality or quantity. Unlike some carpers, I’m also very willing, eager even, to move. I’ll move swims – sometimes almost constantly – and I’ll even move waters. These are often close together along the Wensum Valley but not necessarily so.  If I’m convinced a lake is going to fish better and it’s thirty miles away, so be it, we’ll be in the car. Whether a client or a film crew, you don’t come with JB for an idle sort of day.
Bizarrely, one of my most busy periods, both with clients and in front of the camera, coincided with the worst possible conditions that Norfolk can throw at you – an endless period of northerly winds. I don’t know what it is about northerlies and Norfolk but they really are the kiss of death. I noticed this first when I was a child and every northerly wind since has simply reinforced that. Of course, if you look at any map, you will see there is nothing between Norfolk and the North Pole apart from endless cold sea. In fact, so raw was this northerly at times, I wouldn’t have been surprised to find I was sharing a Carp water with a polar bear!

It’s strange. Your professional carper is constantly looking for a wind, whereas I am not. It’s partly the difference in approach. As I’ve said, I’m always on the move, stalking, actually looking for a feeding fish. I’m a hunter and not an ambusher and I can’t simply wait for fish to turn up on the wind today or tomorrow. Everything has to be instant. And I’m not sure, either, whether even the pro carper likes a northerly. Looking at the results in the Kingfisher log for this period, you are aware of sharp turndown in captures. Okay, one or two big fish came out but nowhere near the number you’d expect.
There are times when you just have to accept that Carp are not feeding. This is how it was for this entire ten day period for me. The northerly blew and blew and the fish simply sulked. You can use whatever bait and tactics you want, the fish just don’t respond. You can put as appetising a bed of bait as you can imagine down on a bar and it will be there two days later. You can see a Carp come for a piece of crust and turn away. Often it’s not fear of the hook or the line or the drag or anything but a simple reluctance to open a mouth. It’s devastating. You’ve got an expectant client or desperate film crew by your side and you realise there is almost nothing you can do to tip the balance.

I do think incredibly hard about where exactly to fish. During these northerlies, I was constantly investigating the calm water in the lee of any island or tree fringe. Our dear Gavin Burn from Hardy & Greys itself, picked up his first ever Carp on a piece of floating crust from just such a place. The lily bed held off the worst of the northerly and created a small patch of totally calm water. In it, half a dozen Carp, albeit small ones, were feeding spasmodically and Gavin had the patience to sit it out and wait for his first five pounder to make a mistake.

What I also find is that I am constantly watching conditions. I’m checking air temperatures virtually all the time. During this period, they were averaging 15° – 16° during the day but if they ever lifted to 18° or 19°, I’d suddenly sense a window might open. Wind strength became another major, dominating factor. If it fell from an average of 3 or 4 to 1 or 2, then again, you’d begin to see insects hatch out and know the carp would begin to respond given half a chance. In fact, it amazed me how quickly the Carp would switch on to anything like more favourable conditions. It wasn’t a case of waiting half a day, sometimes half an hour was quite adequate. Equally, though, once the temperature dropped back to 15° and the wind rose again, they would switch off like a light bulb.
I suffered the ignominy of two total blank days, tragically both times with bright, enthusiastic eighteen year olds who were desperate for a fish. I was gutted that they were gutted. There is, though, that compensation that tells you that fishing shouldn’t always be guaranteed and too easy and it’s a lesson that is best learnt young. As I stressed to them, this is the beauty about fishing, its total unpredictability. Yes, you can go to a heaving commercial and know you will get bites but you might just as well find your fish stacked on ice at the supermarket.

Perhaps nothing demonstrates the ups and downs of this style of fishing in adverse conditions better than a description of the day I spend with Ragi on the Bottom Lake. This is a hard water at the easiest of times at about five acres, deep with very few features of any sort. The Carp are big, old and incredibly spooky. Ragi, too, likes to take his fish from the surface so I knew we were in for a grueller.
For the full eleven hours, we kept on the move. Rod, reel, hooks, net, bread and dog biscuits, Polaroids and binoculars. We circuited the lake again and again with absolute stealth. Every time the wind dropped, even minutely we’d be on tenterhooks. We’d investigate intently those pockets of water sheltered from the northerly, protected by reed beds or tree fringe – willows  are great wind deflectors on any lake.
We had an early chance. Two fish in the mid-twenties came towards his crust just two feet from the bank in a puddle of calm water. They peeled away but behind them a fish twice the size rose through the water column, accelerating, heading straight for the crust. It turned away, absolutely at the last centimetre, in a big boil of water. I don’t think it saw us or the gear. I’m convinced it just was not hungry. Its instinct led it to the crust but that was where its interested ended.
An hour later, mid-morning, the wind died and a big fish appeared twenty yards out. It located a piece of crust cast to it and actually held it for four or five seconds between its lips before letting go and slipping back down into the water which, once again, had a chop on it. The rise in the wind certainly didn’t help but, yet again, I feel there was no real hunger behind the investigation.
In mid-afternoon, again in a lull, two very big carp appeared in front of us, rising ever closer to the surface. We sensed a chance and put a piece of crust out in the direction to which they were travelling. Almost instantly, the wind in the poplars began to moan, a ripple hit the surface and the fish dived without trace.
The day appeared to be heading for grim conclusion when, at five thirty, the wind, once again, died away completely. A fish was moving right in the reed fringe and almost instantly took a very small piece of crust. We decided that if the fish were not hungry then we’d better scale down the offerings dramatically. That fish weighed a fraction under thirty-six and once it was returned we simply headed for the pub physically and mentally shattered.

I appreciate that not everyone has the privilege of access to so many carp waters that are often not heavily fished. Sometimes, it is just a case of taking the last available pitch and I’m well aware of that. I’ve fished many venues like this and I’m grateful for what I’ve got today, believe me. However, I still believe my observations are valid. Even if you are a traditional, long-stay angler, it really does not hurt to be right on top of your game, really in touch with the water and the changing conditions on even a quarter hourly basis. Often the window of potential capture is an extremely small one. I’ve said before in this column, it’s no surprise that some of the most successful of the Carp anglers at Kingfishers are those who keep mobile, who aren’t afraid to move, who constantly watch the water and who spend an endless amount of time simply considering the options before setting up camp.
I sincerely believe that successful carp fishing is far more than having the right gear with the right rig and the right bait. If you have unlimited patience then you will win out in the end but there are quicker shortcuts to more consistent success.